The Apostle (1997)
Written & Directed by Robert Duvall
I first saw The Apostle approximately twenty-two years ago. I checked it out from the local public library, where I was working at the time and absolutely loved from the first viewing. I mentioned earlier in this series how author Flannery O’Connor referred to the South as a “Christ-haunted landscape.” Robert Duvall furthers this by exploring a character who lives in seeming constant open dialogue with God. He implores the deity for guidance as often as he rages at him for life events the man cannot understand.
Sonny Dewey (Duvall) is a charismatic Pentecostal pastor who has been caught up in the faith since he was 12 years old. He lives in East Texas, the head of his own congregation, while traveling through the state to spread the Gospel at tent revivals. Sonny is also married to Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) and has two beautiful children; however, while on the road one night, he wakes with the sense that something is wrong. Sonny rushes back home to find his wife in the bed of his youth minister’s house. Jessie requests a divorce, and then Sonny learns a vote has been held, and he’s kicked out of his own church.
The pastor takes to drinking and comes to his children’s Little League game, which leads to a confrontation and him taking a bat to the head of the youth pastor. Sonny knows he is in trouble and flees into the small towns of Lousiana. Believing he is being guided by God, Sonny ends up finding a retired minister, Reverend Blackwell, whom he asks to help him start a ministry in this small town. A new family grows for Sonny, and he founds a new congregation that he grows to love. But always hanging over Sonny is the knowledge that the law is hunting him down.
Duvall presents Sonny in a manner different from most preachers in Hollywood films. He’s not a conman, but a true believer. However, he most certainly isn’t a saintly man, but human and a self-admitted womanizer. The conflict of the picture hinges on him being quick to anger and not controlling those emotions. Sonny genuinely wants to save people, as evidenced by the opening scene where he sneaks through the scene of a terrible car accident to lay hands on one of the victims and pray for their soul to enter Heaven. At his best, Sonny never judges another human and accepts everyone that crosses his path.
Duvall made the brilliant choice of casting as many amateur and non-actors as possible in prominent roles. There’s an improvisational feel to so many scenes that works to make us feel like this is a real place and time. The preaching scenes are very free-flowing, and Duvall has clearly studied pastors in the Pentecostal persuasion, preaching a gospel of high energy & look towards the rewards of Heaven. This is a story incredibly special to Duvall as it took him years of financing and script rewrites to finally produce The Apostle. The care and love are all up there on the screen, and he presents people we would want to be around. Even myself, who is not of the faith, couldn’t help but get caught up in the energy and joy.
There isn’t a tightly plotted narrative here; instead, it’s a character piece about Sonny, following him through crucial moments and many mundane ones. We’re always surprised at every turn with scenes not going how we would expect them in a more conventional picture, yet they feel authentic. Sonny doesn’t explode at his wife when discovering her infidelity, he’s angry & confused but ultimately bends to her wishes because he doesn’t want to hurt her. A confrontation with an angry racist man (Billy Bob Thornton) that objects to the race-mixing of Sonny’s church becomes a touching & poignant scene about redemption and forgiveness. Duvall has given us something special, a very naturalistic look at a larger-than-life personality that is a real part of Southern life and reminds us why things like the faith and Church hold such an essential place in this culture.