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'The Apostle': A Man and the Word

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 1998

  Movie Critic

Movie Scene Robert Duvall is married to Farrah Fawcett in "The Apostle." (October Films)

Robert Duvall
Robert Duvall;
Farrah Fawcett;
Miranda Richardson;
Todd Allen;
John Beasley;
June Carter Cash;
Billy Bob Thornton
Running Time:
2 hours, 13 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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Stubborn and nearly impervious to interpretation, Robert Duvall's "The Apostle" insists on being what it is about and nothing else. It expresses no agenda except the storyteller's quest for the truth. And if it tells us something we all know, and if some may wonder at the point of the trip, the answer has to be: The trip is the point of the trip.

Duvall, who also wrote and directed, plays the Apostle E.F., once a flamboyant Texas preacher named Sonny Dewey now fallen on hard times through acts he believes himself not responsible for, although nobody else was in his pants when he was committing them. One of these besides drunkenness, adultery and financial impropriety was a murder. In a fit of drunken rage, and before his son's anguished Little League team, his wife (Farrah Fawcett in a frump role) and flock, he took a baseball bat to the head of a young minister for whom his wife was leaving him. This necessitates a quick withdrawal he believes in God, not jail and, as for many a sinner, a rededication to the ways of the Lord.

The most unusual aspect of Duvall's film besides its making he spent much of the past decade on the project is its refusal to judge. So many secular films view religion as just another scam (but Hollywood, the biggest scam, views everything as a scam). But this film observes the Apostle's calling without irony or question. He is simply a man with a radio in his head that receives the Lord has been since childhood, when he was a boy preacher and he believes in what he is doing not only as the righteous path but as the only one.

No one ever says: Ho, ho, look at the hick preacher man, gulling nickels from the pockets of the despairing poor. There's no sense of buffoonery, slickness or condescension. Duvall doesn't consider Pentecostal ministers and their fiercely believing flocks fools or primitives or easily manipulated sheep. They're just human beings, good and bad.

And the Apostle E.F. is somehow more human than many of them. He's capable of great generosity of spirit, faith like a rock and the capacity to inspire others; but when his loins begin to tickle, he thinks that's the voice of God and that he must follow. So his has been a life of mission and indulgence.

In a newly invented life, he exhibits the same behavior. Coming to rest in his flight in a backwater Louisiana town, he sets about to rebuild his life. Duvall the director has a wonderful feeling for the quality of small-town life and the behavior of real people. Nothing in the film feels "acted"; everyone pops to immediate life, particularly the Rev. Blackwell (John Beasley), a former minister who had to retire because of a heart condition. That the Apostle, who is white, and the Reverend, who is black, would join forces in the segregated religious world seems unlikely at first. But race is something the Apostle doesn't see, for, like his Employer, color is not a reality with him, only faith. Soon, with the Reverend's sponsorship, he's invented a new life.

This involves building a new church "The One Way Road to Heaven," again offered without laughter or condescension. The Apostle finds a day job as a mechanic, gets himself on the town's radio station and begins courting the station owner's secretary (Miranda Richardson). He's not an activist, a do-gooder in the radical sense; nor does he mean to shake things up. He understands the church's dynamic role in town life, and his true motive seems to be saving souls and making sure he's on that one-way road himself.

Yet at the same time and despite the press notes' spin he's not really interested in redemption. His own crime has no meaning for him; he's not haunted by guilt, and one suspects that he still believes that uppity young fellow deserved his crack on the head. He's not a self-critical man. He's a man with a calling.

In its beguiling way, "The Apostle" is more like a documentary than a drama, though it tells a story. It reminded me somewhat of Archibald MacLeish's famous line that a poem "should not mean but be." That's the reality of "The Apostle": It does not mean, it simply is.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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