Baptism or alcoholism; wash away your sins or drown your sorrows. Jesus Saves or does Jack Daniels? That's the Bible Belt question at the heart of "Tender Mercies," a compassionate, authentic, Southern-set film.

Rugged, weathered Robert Duvall stars in this taciturn love story full of discomfort and buried pain. He plays Mac Sledge, a drinking man who dries out and accepts Jesus as his savior because of the woman he loves. That woman is played eloquently, with hidden fervor, by newcomer Tess Harper. The couple's love extends to her boy Sonny (Lenny Von Dohlen), who aches to know his real daddy, killed in the Vietnam war before Sonny was born.

Mac, once a country-western star, begins working for and eventually weds the widow Rosa Lee. Their livelihood and home is the faded Mariposa Motel -- two tourist cabins on one of those roads made obsolete by the interstate highway. They don't even bother fastening the screen door out that away, where the Texas landscape is as flat as the worn, gray barn boards, and an occasional passing truck makes the silence all the louder.

Mac goes down that lonesome road one day to see his former wife, Dixie (Betty Buckley), perform. His love for Rosa Lee and his temperance are tested when Dixie denies him the chance to see his teenage daughter (Ellen Barkin) and make amends. Buckley and Barkin are both interesting performers but unfortunately don't get much screen time, what with all of director Bruce Beresford's lingering on the lonely macadam.

It's the American film debut of Australian Beresford, whose film "Breaker Morant" has won much acclaim. Here, he has a lot going for him, but he tends to overpan the big, big prairie. And sometimes he allows scenes to run down in mid-confrontation, particularly those between Mac and Dixie.

Screenwriter Horton Foote ("To Kill a Mockingbird") creates three rare human beings -- not jukebox stereotypes -- in Sonny, Mac and Rosa Lee. They're shy, emotionally severe people, country people who sing their emotions in baleful ballads.

They were country when country wasn't cool. Always will be, praise the Lord. TENDER MERCIES -- At the Jenifer.