THE APOSTLE (1997) ***
Abroad, meaningful films that deal with faith, its problems, crises and quandaries, do not abound but do exist --by Ingmar Bergman (several), Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped).Carl-Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet). Or the "political" A Man for All Seasons, or else Becket, taken from the Jean Anouilh play Becket or The Honor of God.
Finally, Duvall had to finance The Apostle himself. There's a catch with this film. Religion is not its soul. The film is a showpiece for Robert Duvall, at about age 66. Does he need this? He is an all-time great. In 34 years (his debut was as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird) and in all of his 75 movies, he showed extraordinary talent and versatility. At a rock-bottom minimum he should be remembered for THX 1138, Mash, the Godfather, the Great Santini, Apocalypse Now, True Confessions, Tender Mercies, Lonesome Dove, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, Sling Blade.
In The Apostle he plays (and plays, and plays) "Sonny" Dewey, a wild and woolly Texas Pentecostal evangelist (since childhood), with wife and children. He has genuine faith, devotion, love for God and His creatures, but he is flawed by his temper and his womanizing.
Duvall's affection for his subject leads him into mysterious paths. In the opening sequence Sonny and his mother stumble onto a terrible car accident. With amazing eloquence the preacher proceeds to "save" willy-nilly a still-alive victim, then prides himself for scoring points with the Almighty. Soon after come "then" --colorful preaching when Sonny was a boy -- and "now": spectacles of revivalism, crowds, testimonials from the stage, people (including Sonny) shouting, singing, dancing, prancing, bouncing. Whether planned that way or not, this comes out as ambiguous (is Sonny a faker?) and as an ironic look at a certain slice of Americana. There is even a shot of mass arm-raisings by the faithful that recalls Nazi or Soviet salutes.
Confusing too is the status of Sonny and his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett). He loves yet neglects her as he puts his preaching first. He makes no bones about his infidelities. Jessie has taken a lover, Horace (Todd Allen) a young preacher junior in rank to Sonny. Jessie leaves Sonny. She is seen in bed with Horace -- openly? in a small town? there's something implausible here. (Some fellow-viewers thought that Jessie had divorced Sonny, others that she was already married to Horace, etc.)
In another bitter pill, Sonny learns that he has been deposed as leader of his church by the trickery of Jessie and Horace. He becomes violent. Soon after, when he finds "his beauties" (his boy and girl), playing softball with other kids, plus Jessie and Horace, he totally loses control, smashes Horace's head with a bat, leaves him moribund.
Suddenly, keeping a oddly cool composure, Sonny leaves town in his car. He ditches it in a stream and eventually makes his way to the small, predominantly black town of Bayou Boutte, Louisiana. His energy is literally incredible. He makes quick decisions, gets an instant job as a mechanic (he knows everything about cars), contacts aged black preacher Brother Blackwell (John Beasley) who had retired after two heart attacks, talks him into reopening a derelict church that belongs to the Brother, renovates it with the help of others (you expect him to say :"I coulda been a contractor"), restores a wreck of a school bus, does regular programs on the local radio, baptizes the cleaned up church "One Way Road to Heaven," gets an increasingly large (considering the small population) congregation, fires away with his preaching. Whew!
In Louisiana, Sonny changes his name to The Apostle E.F., which is pretty immodest and hubristic. The point of all this is supposed to be that fugitive Sonny is seeking redemption, but seemingly only for his attack on Horace, since other sins are not mentioned. Certainly not promiscuity, as the Apostle also starts fascinating and seducing Toosie, the radio station's secretary. She is played by Briton Miranda Richardson sporting a credible accent and looking rather anorexically thin (The affair-to-be is not consummated).
What motivates Sonny must really be powerful compulsion to preach and organize. The sin that only whispers its name, yet of which Sonny seems unconscious, is megalomania, ego-tripping. It is also the sin of actor Duvall who is so taken with his own performance and with he character he plays that he does not know (as a writer-director) where to draw the line.
The movie is Duvall/Sonny from A to Z for its long duration, 133 minutes ( 7,980 seconds). There is so much of Sonny that it robs the picture of opportunities to flesh out any other character.
Duvall's performance is anti-Consigliere. I refer to his famous role of advisor (Consigliere) to Marlon Brando in The Godfather. As Tom Hagen, the single non-Sicilian-American of the "family," he was a strong, quiet presence. Here, as a strong but voluble presence, Duvall gives himself the only role that matters while letting some other elements of the movie, including continuity and editing, fall where they may.
In Apocalypse Now, Duvall's Lt. Col. Kilgore had the unforgettable line "I love the smell of napalm in the morning! " In The Apostle it feels as though he's thinking "I love the sound of me around the clock!" That he is superb at whatever he does is a given. But enough is enough.
On the other hand, this work that drips with colorful Americana, by virtue of its nature and locations is gratifyingly color blind and not class conscious. There is no racism except when redneck Billy Bob Thornton gets into a fight with Duvall. But soon Duvall' s powers of persuasion will tame Billly Bob. Bibles used physically, plus Gandhian non-violent exhortations, make him end up lacrymously embracing Duvall. This is a strong sequence -- but it does smack of Hollywoodist theatricality.
The overall concentration on religiosity (not religion) and on Sonny go on and on to the point of making some viewers count the minutes. Still, the tour-de-force performance by the master actor does sustain the film and is undeniably impressive.
" Le mauvais gout mene au crime" (Stendhal)
Edwin Jahiel's movie reviews are at edwinjahiel.com