The Apostle
directed by Robert Duvall
(October Films, 1997)

If you can see Robert Duvall as a high-energy evangelist, you have more imagination than most people.

But not more than Duvall, who wrote, directed and produced The Apostle with just that in mind.

Duvall was the epitome of control as Bible-toting Major Frank Burns in the original M*A*S*H. Not so in The Apostle, where he shimmies, shakes, struts and two-steps his way into his congregations' hearts and souls every chance he gets.

From his first screen appearance, in which he rouses a near-dead accident victim to consciousness by invoking the Holy Spirit, to his last audible word, a chant of encouragement to members of his prison road gang, Duvall breathes the same pulse-pounding life into Texas evangelist Euliss "Sonny" Dewey that Dewey breathes into his own following.

Unfortunately, Sonny isn't able to similarly inspire his wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett), who takes up with the youth minister, then takes Sonny's church away from him. Sonny strikes back; unfortunately, it's with a baseball bat.

Having sent the youth minister to his heavenly reward, Sonny takes off for parts unknown, which turn out to be a small town named Bayou Boutte, La. There, with the help of a local pastor (John Beasley), Sonny plants a whole new church, The One Way Road to Heaven holiness temple, which comes complete with a large, lighted one-way sign pointing skyward.

But wherever he goes, and whatever he does, two questions follow: Will the police catch up him? And is he a shaman or a sham? The Apostle is an independent film, and it carries with it many of the earmarks of an independent: some offbeat casting, particularly Fawcett as the piano-playing wife and June Carter Cash as Dewey's mother; some no-name casting, most notably Beasley as the local pastor; and a series of glowing landscapes that leave you with the impression that it hasn't rained in Louisiana in a decade or two.

And yet it all works, well enough at least to win more than a half dozen awards, including Independent Spirit awards for best director, feature and male lead. It also earned Duvall an Oscar nomination (best actor).

And acting is where The Apostle works best. The storyline is loose and the motivations unclear. Sonny's mother notes that "sometimes he talks to the Lord and sometimes he yells at the Lord," but why he is so totally devoted to the Lord, and why he feels the need to recruit everyone he meets on his way is never really touched on.

Instead, Duvall focuses on the visible aspects of Dewey's ministry, the callings, the healings, the conversions and two images of unforgettable power: Sonny's vanity-plated Lincoln Continental sinking into a lake, and Sonny baptizing himself The Apostle E.F. -- the first step on the road to redemption.

But can a man redeem himself without first facing his past -- especially one that includes a homicide? That's another question Duvall asks, yet declines to answer.

The conclusion you reach may surprise you. Mine sure surprised me.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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