The Apostle (1997)
This review was originally published at Green Lake Reflections, the arts-review branch of a Green Lake Presbyterian Church’s website, in 1997. It has since been edited and revised.
In The Apostle, his directorial debut, Robert Duvall gives what is arguably 1997’s best performance by an actor.
Even more impressive that – Duvall wrote the screenplay, which gives us what may be the most unapologetic, intimate portrayal of a religious man in the history of American cinema.
This is the story of the Reverend E.F. — “Sonny,” to those close to him — a minister whose marital troubles lead him to a violent crime and a flight from the law. Duvall’s story is so simple, he can take his time and acclimate the audience to the environment, the needs of the communities, and thus the possibilities of healing and harmony in broken families and across racial lines.
And he clearly knows his way around the heart of southern evangelicalism. The enthusiasm of the congregations in the churches depicted is remarkably genuine, and even hardened skeptics will find it hard to resist the inspiring power of those rousing worship services.
Duvall’s supporting cast includes a surprisingly engaging Farrah Fawcett as his disillusioned wife, Billy Bob Thornton as a stubborn thick-headed redneck, and Miranda Richardson in yet another of her astonishing transformations this time, she’s a southern belle through and through.
In this simple story of a pilgrim’s progress, Duvall’s patient and observant direction avoids sentimentalism, does not look away when things get ugly, and leaves a lot of loose ends, giving the film the authenticity of a good documentary when it comes to the context, and the intimacy of a candid autobiography. E.F., zealous as he is for the gospel, has not overcome all his sins: He has “a wandering eye” and a lack of self-control.
He is also unique among big-screen Christian characters in his willingness to get angry with God. In one scene, we visit E.F.’s mother awakened in the night by the familiar — and, it turns out, endearing — sound of the fallen evangelist ranting and raging at God.
It sometimes seems that filmmakers find it impossible to portray a Christian who isn’t hiding some shocking skeleton in the closet or on the verge of stumbling into serious criminal behavior. But Duvall isn’t interested in attacking faith itself… just exploring the sin of hypocrisy. He illustrates the fallible humanity of evangelists, the need for humility in a leader, and the need for redemption even in (and especially in) one who who is respected as a teacher. Audiences accustomed to cruel caricatures of Christians will be challenged by this nuanced presentation of believers who, for all of their theatrical and emotional forms of expression, are also noble, hardworking, admirable people.
In this, we find a truer example of the gospel at work than we would in a preachy, two-dimensional story. This gospel feels applicable to own own lives, unlike the harsh and punishing prescriptions of judgmental and legalistic TV preachers. This reverend, who can seem alien and threatening when he’s onstage shouting at congregants, is revealed to be thoroughly human as we discover his weaknesses, his heart, and his own incomplete understanding of an incomprehensible God.
Unlike so much wishful-thinking storytelling in Christian media, The Apostle isn’t about how his devotion to Jesus brings him to the end of wrestling with sin. It remains a realistic character sketch about a sinner who, after a battle with his conscience, emerges wiser, his faith renewed, but still flawed and struggling. This rings true in a way that audiences should find easier to receive than a sermon.
When seen in combination with the simple powerful telling of the gospel in Spielberg’s Amistad, The Apostle should have viewers thinking about the gospel in a fresh new way this year… and I suspect its power will make it an enduring favorite.