The Apostle

Provost's Film Series

January 29, 1999




Long shunned by the major studios, The Apostle was a tour de force for Robert Duvall, its producer, director, writer, and lead actor.  Not until Duvall poured $5 million of his cash into the production did the film get made, nearly fifteen years after he tried to launch it.  Most of the major actors joined the endeavor for small fees.  When released, this modest-budget film took the nation's critics by surprise.  Usually an antagonist to spiritual themes, David Demby of the New York Review called it the most important American film ever made about religion.  Janet Maslin in the New York Times lauded the film's "blazing heart and soul" and its "rare display of spiritual light."

What is rare about The Apostle is its authenticity.  Where so many films succumb to saccharine images of piety or blunt-edged satire of hypocrisy, The Apostle tells of a wayward preacher without sentimentality or condescension.  Along the way, it captures the lethargy of small-town America, the tempest of Southern preaching, and the complexity of human character.

 For his own part, Duvall envisions Sonny as a "good man," a flawed but humane soul who "zig-zags" off course now and then. Viewers reach different verdicts about Sonny, who flees a failed marriage and his own rage to restart life as the self-proclaimed "Apostle E.F."   Even as Sonny runs, Duvall laces the story with biblical allusions—most of all, to Jesus' retreat into the wilderness and his baptism.  We are left to decipher whether these parallels to Christ are signs of Sonny's heartfelt renewal or ironic reminders of Sonny's arrogance and moral evasiveness.


Whooping 101

The script reveals the director's ear for the language and rhythms of Southern sermons— what Duvall called a great "American art form."  As Sonny declares, there is no "eleventh commandment" proclaiming "Thou Shall Not Shout."  Wary of TV preachers for becoming too "spectacle-oriented," Duvall sought the "rank and file" in rural America, especially in the African-American flocks.  Most of the actors in The Apostle are non-professionals—folks from small churches who simply play themselves. "I was meandering around Hughes, Arkansas, for research for a part," Duvall recalls, "and I went to one of those little churches. . . There are some wonderful people, excellent people, who really believe.  Churches were like the rock of a community.  We have lost that.  We have the suburbs, and there is not that same family-feeling, with the church being the center.  In the black community, those preachers were spiritual leaders from the time of slavery till today."  "I like the older black Baptist preachers," Duvall admits. "This old guy, Jasper Williams in Atlanta, is a terrific preacher.  I hear he has a course on it:  Whooping 101.  It is a wonderful expression . . . . The best preacher I ever saw in my entire life, all around, was Ishamel Williams from Hamilton, Virginia.  He was 96 when he passed away.  He was a wonderful, kind man.  I would go to his churches and I got all that stuff about the little airplane flying to heaven and the church singing 'I'll Fly Away.'"


Holy Ghost Explosion

Duvall concedes that his gaze was primarily on the Baptists and fundamentalists of the American South, but his film appeared just as Pentecostalism caught the nation's attention.  For years ignored by intellectuals on churches and campuses, Pentecostalism is now recognized as the dominant strain in the "great awakening" of Christianity, with some 20 million converts each year, especially in the "global South"—Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.  Duvall's film captures what Harvard's Harvey Cox saw in the swelling Pentecostal movement—a faith that embraces the "tactile" as the "substance of worship."  With its fundamentalist leanings, the film shies away from the issue of speaking in tongues (only the "King's English" here, one character explains) but overall it captures the feelings of joy, terror, awe, and mystery that provoke Pentecostalism's voluble praise and bodily energy.  Staying well above the fray of the doctrinal quarrels that often splinter conservative denominations, the film keeps its euphoric spirit with some ecumenical tact.  As he watches a Louisiana priest blessing the fleet in the bayou country, Sonny laughs:  "You do it your way, I do it mine.  But they both get it done."

What sets The Apostle apart from many films is that it takes this faith seriously.  In mainstream Hollywood cinema, even the most sympathetic films about religion generally portray clerics and believers as models of human virtue, admirable servants even if their creeds are intellectually sparse.  But The Apostle is neither a rosy portrait of human virtue nor a cool sociological study of the revival that Sonny calls the "Holy Ghost explosion."  Duvall clearly wants to imply that the Holy Ghost can actually touch human lives.  As a result, he labored over the film's very first scene, where Sonny prays alongside an unconscious young couple at a roadside car wreck.  The episode allows you to make your interpretation about what happens, but the camera angles and images in the scene leave plenty of reason to believe that God indeed listens to and answers prayer.


Robert Duvall

Although he is widely seen as one of the most astute interpreters of the American South, Duvall claims that his directorial influences have been eclectic, including several Europeans—such as Lasse Hallstrom and Kenneth Loach—and a few "literary" Americans, such as Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola.  Nevertheless, he notes that the Europeans can "miss the point" when they try to direct American films about American life, especially in its rural corners.  Discovered by the writer Horton Foote, the young Duvall first landed a film role in Foote's 1963 screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.   He went on to earn high acclaim for his roles in Coppola's major films, including the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now.  In 1983 he teamed up again with writer Foote for Tender Mercies, which won him an Academy Award for Best Actor.  That film, with its gentle, laconic portrait of Southern Christianity, encouraged him to undertake work on The Apostle, though it took far more than a decade to win backing for the project.  Ever since the release of The Apostle, Duvall has been pressed to declare his own spiritual convictions, but has remained coy, at times hinting at Christian ideals, at times keeping his distance from faith.  Whatever his own beliefs, there is no doubt that he has been a keen and sympathetic observer of the American religious scene.