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The Apostle (1997)

In a film that took 13 years and $5 million of his own money, Robert Duvall tells the story of The Reverend Eulis "Sonny" Dewey, a charismatic Pentacostal preacher.  As the film opens, Sonny is being brought (dragged?) to church by a black woman, perhaps a nanny.  In this ramshackle building, amongst the predominantly black parishioners, Sonny hears the fire and brimstone sermons and is himself moved to take up preaching.  His present life finds him the head of his own church in East Texas; driving a luxury car with "Sonny" plates; living in a big house; married to a pretty blonde wife (Farrah Fawcett); with two lovely blonde children (his "beauties"); a powerful man with a big ego.  But there's a worm in the apple and when the Lord wakes him in a motel one night and tells him to check his bed at home, Sonny discovers that his wife has taken up with the church's youth minister.

It is clear that the marriage has been troubled before, not least of all because Sonny is on the road so much and has a "wandering eye", but now his wife tells him she wants out.  She even refuses to pray with him.  Then, adding insult to injury, he finds that she has taken the church from him too.  Sonny takes to arguing with the Lord, wondering what he's supposed to do with himself now, waiting for a sign.  But with no guidance forthcoming, Sonny, at loose ends and drinking too much, shows up at a little league game to see his children and the youth minister unwisely confronts him.  In an explosion of temper, but one that's been simmering, Sonny lays him out with a baseball bat.

Taking it on the lam, Sonny discards all vestiges of his former life.  An old black man lets Sonny stay with him for a few days and tells him about a minister he knows down in Louisianna, C. Charles Blackwell.  Sonny, after much soul searching and further discussions with the Lord, rebaptizes himself as "The Apostle E. F." and heads to Bayou Boutte to meet Brother Blackwell

There Sonny takes on several menial jobs and cultivates a friendship with the appropriately distrustful Blackwell, who has been forced by ill health to abandon his church.  Sonny, his charisma intact and now possessed by a fierce desire to found a new church, wins Blackwell's trust (or at least a bemused acquiesence), gains his first disciple in a young mechanic he works with; gets time on a local radio station to speak the Word, and restores Blackwell's old church.  From humble beginnings--the first service is attended by only a handful of people--Sonny begins to build a congregation and a relationship with the surrounding community.  One of the locals, played by Billy Bob Thornton, takes exception to the idea of blacks and whites worshipping together, but Sonny first beats him and then confounds him with love ("So spake the Son of God, and Satan stood A while as mute, confounded what to say."  --John Milton).

Finally, Sonny tells Blackwell who he really is and why he's there.  He knows that the law must soon close in on him, but until they do he just wants to devote himself to the church.  The story builds--at a stately pace, it's true--to an extended final scene in which Sonny conducts his last service with the police waiting to arrest him, having perhaps been betrayed by the mechanic.

This is a surprising movie in many ways, but chiefly for the generosity of Duvall's vision.  Producer, writer, director, star, he obviously has something to say here and the one message that comes through most clearly is the power of faith in the lives of Sonny and his flock.  One of the most unusual things about the portrayal of Sonny is that there is never a single moment in the movie where it seems like he is playing a role.  Think what you will of his surpassing ego and the undeniable control he seeks to exert on people; he is nonetheless a man who truly believes in what he's saying and feels a genuine calling to serve the Lord and his fellow man.  The humility with which he recognizes his own sinfulness and asks God's guidance, the willingness with which he embraces poverty, the eagerness with which he seeks hard work in order to fund the church, the love with which he approaches everyone, all mark him as a good and decent man, despite his obvious sins and character flaws.

You may disapprove of Sonny's more extreme character traits and impulsive actions (though the Old Testament-style punishment he metes out seems fair where adultery is concerned) and may find his religion unusual, but he's a truly compelling figure.  All credit is due to Duvall who has crafted one of the most well-rounded and even-handed portraits of a man of faith in any picture that I can recall.  His time and money were well spent.


Grade: (A)


See also:

    -INFO : The Apostle (1997) (
    -INFO : The Apostle (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -WEBRING : The Apostle (BOMIS)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Robert Duvall (
    -INFO : Tender Mercies (1983)  (
    -INTERVIEW :  Robert Duvall's Un-Hollywood Take on Movies  (David Sterritt, January 23, 1998, The Christian Science Monitor)
    -INTERVIEW : with Robert Duvall & Billy Bob Thornton. (Elizabeth Weitzman, March 1998, Interview)
    -ARTICLE : 'The Apostle' Rewrites How Religion Is Depicted on Big Screen  (Robert Marquand, The Christian Science Monitor)
    -ESSAY : The Apostle: A Psychiatric Appraisal  (Carl Greiner, Journal of Film and Religion)
    -Concordance to The Apostle (The Text This Week )
    -ARCHIVES : Directory | Robert Duvall
    -ARCHIVES : "Robert Duvall" (Find Articles)
    -WEBGUIDE : Robert Duvall (Web Crawler)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Janet Maslin, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Roy Anker, Books & Culture)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Michael Elliott, The Christian Critic)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Mark Gilman, Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Pastor Jack Hayford, Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Hollywood Jesus)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Daniel Woods,  The Journal of Southern Religion)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Joel Martin,  The Journal of Southern Religion)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (R. Marie Griffith,  The Journal of Southern Religion)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Vinson Synan,  The Journal of Southern Religion)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (The Christian Century,  James M. Wall)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Commonweal,  Richard Alleva)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Aaron Gallegos, Sojourners)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Linda Chavez, Jewish World Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (James Bowman, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Film Quarterly,  Felicia Feaster)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Charles Taylor, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Richard Corliss, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Ty Burr, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Susan Stark/ Detroit News)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (John Hartl, Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Kenneth Turan, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Edward Guthmann, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Shawn Levy, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Paul Tatara, CNN)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (MICHAEL JANUSONIS, Providence Journal)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Craig Kopp, Cincy Post)
    -REVIEW : (Ray Pride, New City Net)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Peter Keough, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Richard von Busack, Metro Active)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Angie Drobnic, Weekly Alibi)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Mary Dickson, City Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Jim Ridley, Nashville Scene)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Susan Ellis, Memphis Flyer)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Steve Davis, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : ( Bill DeLapp , Syracuse New Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Peter Brunette,
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Gaby Wood, Mail and Guardian SA)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (James Berardinelli Reel Reviews)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Steve Kong, Hard Boiled Movies)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Flick Filosopher)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Kate Randall, World Socialist Web Site)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Cranky Critic)
    -REVIEW : of The Apostle (Nathaniel R. Atcheson, Film Psychosis)
    -REVIEW : The Apostle (William P. Coleman, Reviews & Reflections)

    -The Journal of Southern Religion