Wednesday, August 15, 2007


THE APOSTLE (1997, USA, Robert Duvall)
I’m goin’ to jail, and you’re goin’ to heaven.

The one fallen evangelist movie evangelicals don’t hate. Not that Sonny’s flaws are white-washed – though they may be washed in the blood, which is what really matters. He’s plenty fallen, not only before his riverside rededication (he initiates the dramatic action by taking a baseball bat to the youth pastor, right in front of the church ball team) but after. Even once he’s washed his sins away and taken a new name – “The Apostle E.F.” – he’s still got an eye for the women, a tendency to not-entirely-righteous anger, a preacher-sized ego and, the worst sin of all, a tacky sense of personal taste. (But Lord, can that man preach! One of the great pleasures of this film is the language – it lights up whenever Sonny is on fire. “I may be on the devil’s hit-list, but I’m on God’s mailing list!” He’s a “genuine, Holy Ghost, Jesus-filled preachin’ machine.”)

This is no Elmer Gantry caricature: Sonny’s a real mess, but at least he’s real. And he’s trying. He’s a lot like us.

Robert Duvall paid for the film out of his own pocket, and that conviction plays out both in front of the camera and behind it: it’s one of the great performances of one of film’s greatest actors, and one of the strongest directorial debuts you’ll be blessed to see. The filmmaker’s fervency is perfectly matched to his subject. Like his on-screen altar ego, Duvall was on a mission, maybe from God: he wanted to give credence to a people Hollywood had no understanding of or time for.

Not that he dresses up fundamentalism to make a good impression on the faithless: this is plain spun old school Pentecostalism, with all the hellfire and brimstone, stomping and shouting you can stand. But when Sonny, on the lam from that murder rap, sets up shop in a neglected church in an out of the way Louisiana town, his ministry is just as old school as his preaching. He rolls up his sleeves and just plain sets in to work; building, praying, preaching on the radio (“And no speaking in tongues on the air!”), inspiring. It’s called revival, and the truest thing of all in this true-to-life portrait of a bigger-than-life sinner is that it’s Sonny who gets revived most of all. Give and it shall be given unto you, for with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.

You can count on that. It’s Gospel.


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