Journal of Southern Religion

The Apostle, directed by Robert Duvall. October Films, 1997.

        Southern preachers have been the butt of many a Hollywood joke. From Elmer Gantry to Marjoe Gortner to Steve Martin's flashy trickster in Leap of Faith, revivalistic preachers have been depicted as cynical, manipulative, and deeply corrupt: oily hucksters out to con their way into the pocketbooks of eager worshipers and into the underclothes of impassioned (and preferably buxom) sisters. Whatever good comes out of their ministries occurs either through accident or through the generosity of someone near them, usually a woman or child who somehow saves the preacher from his own hypocrisies.

"Though the film sometimes bypasses complex reality for simpler images, it nonetheless represents a welcome change from negative stereotypes of Southern Christians, and especially revivalistic preachers."

     Robert Duvall's Sonny shares many outward characteristics with these scuzzy preachers of deception: like them he has a weakness for pretty women, a tendency to numb his guilt with alcohol, and a violent temper that is not infrequently directed at his wife, Jessie, and their two young children. But there the similarities mostly end, as Sonny is a true believer, not a fraud publicly regaling the masses with a Christian faith that he privately scorns. Despite his repeated marital indiscretions and his murderous attack on his wife's lover, he considers himself a dutiful servant of God, still preaching the Word as he has since he was twelve and working continually to save sinners from the fires of hell. The juxtaposition between Sonny's very real iniquity and his equally genuine rectitude gives this film its extraordinary vigor and refreshing integrity. Resonant with the harsh and glorious world of Flannery O'Connor, The Apostle confronts viewers with a powerful theological vision of sin and undeserved grace.

     Taken to an otherwise completely African-American church as a child, Sonny was bred in the musical cadences of Southern Pentecostalism and later adopts its rhythms in his own preaching. Speaking to congregations that seem to have triumphed over racial barriers, Sonny's sermons focus on the two personages with whom he is most relentlessly involved: the Devil and Jesus. In Texas, Sonny manages to serve both masters supremely well, destroying his family and successful ministry even as he facilitates redemption to other souls; but once over the state line into Bayou Boutt , Louisiana, and rebaptized as the Apostle "E. F.," he focuses with renewed vigor on the Lord's work, grateful that God has apparently allowed him to escape his crime. He starts a new church, the One Way Road to Heaven Holiness Temple, that revitalizes the community; he anonymously distributes boxes of food to the hungry; he brings love and joy and salvation to men and women in need, including a furious redneck bent on bulldozing the racially mixed church. Ironically, it is through a radio announcement offering to send prayer-blessed scarves to the sick and lost elsewhere that the folks back in Texas learn of his whereabouts and send the police down to capture him.

     His final sermon in that church, preached as deputy officers guard the door awaiting his exit, centers on the boundless love of God, which he illustrates by means of a tiny infant whose beautiful, innocent hands are made to recall the nail-scarred hands of Christ. After leading Sam the mechanic, who knows about his murderous crime, to salvation, Sonny is led away to jail; but we see him a final time, laboring in the fields with his chain gang, preaching to his fellow prisoners and leading them in worshipful shouts of "Jesus! Jesus!" Though helplessly beset by diabolical passions, he is also a man of conviction and tenderness and will presumably continue following God in his own gritty way.

     As a director, Robert Duvall has ignored or obscured certain details of Sonny's story. He explains little about the complicated relationship between Sonny and his wife, conceals the identity of the woman who took him to church as a child, and leaves to the imagination the aftermath of the film's two powerful conversions. These omissions detract from the film's coherence, but the spareness of detail allows us to concentrate on Sonny's inner life and the battle he wages between good and evil. Perhaps it is not so vigorous a battle as we expect, since Sonny shows limited outward remorse for his transgressions, but his haunted countenance and fiery exchanges with God are richly suggestive of the war raging within. Duvall's brilliant characterization of this figure resonates with the confessional message that grace is a gift for sinners, not for saints, and deftly reveals this grace in Sonny's raw intimacy with Jesus. Yet Sonny is a man also urgently in need of human attachment and hungry for illicit sex, and the question of what drives his insatiable appetites is awkwardly left unexplored.

     Duvall, who now lives in rural Virginia, has received much attention for this film, and it is well known that after trying unsuccessfully for a decade to get Hollywood producers interested in the project, he used nearly $5 million of his own savings to finance it. He has described visiting Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and, while singing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," experiencing profound faith in Jesus and deep emotional connection to the other worshipers. It is the power of this experience that Duvall has set out to capture in his film, yet in his eagerness to convey Southern Pentecostalism lovingly he neglects its underside, the ugly cruelty to which rural poverty and racial inequity give rise and in which religion is inevitably entwined. Sonny is allowed to be an unpretentious sinner, as is the bulldozing redneck, but nearly all others in the film are portrayed as near saints, especially the African American characters. The latter remain more apparitional than real, shadowy figures who seem to have no lives outside the church walls or the fishing hole. While Duvall, who used more "real people" than actors in the film, surely did not intend this effect, his lack of attention to the lived experiences of the Apostle's congregants perpetuates romanticized images of Black religion in disturbing and all too familiar ways. The woman sitting behind me in the theater who snickered loudly during most of the church scenes exemplifies the scorn that this depiction risks preserving.

     Though the film sometimes bypasses complex reality for simpler images, it nonetheless represents a welcome change from negative stereotypes of Southern Christians, and especially revivalistic preachers. Both humor and pathos abound, but neither overwhelms the dignity of the man whose divided inner self is glimpsed opaquely yet felt intimately. Here, at last, is a Hollywood preacher whose portrayal we can believe.

R. Marie Griffith, Northwestern University

© 1998 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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