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

         Bless Robert Duvall. In The Apostle he electrifies, providing a portrait of a volatile man possessed by the sacred. His character E.F., "just call me 'Sonny,'" dominates the film and everyone in it. Like a natural force from the southern heartland, he moves through people's lives with the subtlety of a Gulf Coast thunderstorm. Violent, embracing, and ornery, he transforms those drenched by his words and spun by his swift passage. Charged with God, he is Flannery O'Connor's bull, bringing grace even to those who would avoid it. For this tour de force, the best of an extraordinary career that has included many memorable southern characters, Duvall deserved the Oscar for Best Actor.

"Duvall's film departs from standard Hollywood practice: it treats spiritual life seriously."

      To bring to the screen this complex God-centered character, Duvall had to dedicate years of his life and ample sums of his own money. Hollywood did not rush to support this project, and yet, this very fact may have benefited Duvall's picture. Had Hollywood exercised a heavier hand in making and financing the film, the results might have been less original. Duvall's film departs from standard Hollywood practice: it treats spiritual life seriously. As Margaret Miles discusses in her book Seeing and Believing, Hollywood filmmakers routinely distort religious life. They tend to equate spiritual fervor with psychosis, scripture reading with zealotry. See the apocalypse-craving maniac in Contact, the warped Robert de Niro character in Cape Fear, the sadistic Bible-quoting warden in Shawshank Redemption, and the religious charlatan in Steve Martin's Leap of Faith. The list of negative portrayals of religious people could be extended indefinitely, as Michael Medved amply documents in Hollywood vs. America. Though he and Miles are ideological opposites--Miles a liberal feminist, Medved a comrade of Rush Limbaugh--both give Hollywood failing grades when it comes to representing religion. (Conrad E. Ostwalt, Jr. and I give Hollywood a higher grade in our book Screening the Sacred, but we employ a more inclusive definition of what counts as religion.)

      In such a context, Duvall's film is not just remarkable, it is sui generis. If not perfect--several of its characters need additional development and the plot has a few holes--the film provides an invaluable portrait of a person deeply involved with God and on a lifelong quest for heaven. From the time Sonny was a little boy growing up during the Depression in New Boston, Texas, attending a rural black church with his African-American nanny, God has been the main person in his life. Receiving the call at age twelve (c. 1946 by my reckoning), Sonny has served God as a Holiness evangelist throughout the South. Sonny may stray from the straight and narrow, but he never doubts God. With prayer he sutures himself to Jesus time and time again. When his wife tells him she wants a divorce, Sonny wants them to get down on their knees and take it to the Lord. When he loses his pulpit, he yells at God and demands an answer, but does not lose faith. When he kills his wife's lover, the youth minister, he concludes the dying man is on the "road to Glory." After he becomes a fugitive, he asks God for guidance, fasts, prays, and is born again as "E.F.," the apostle. Finally, after his capture and sentencing, he leads a chain gang in a spirited call-and-response celebration of Jesus. Though never a pure person--he cheats on his wife and evidently has beaten her as well--Sonny's spirituality is sincere. The first biblical passage quoted in the film invokes the story of the thief, who on the cross next to the crucified Lord, asks for forgiveness and receives a promise of the Kingdom. That narrative prefigures Sonny's story perfectly. Like the thief, he sins gravely, but truly desires salvation and believes he will receive it. Never has the life of a southern evangelical been so fully and engagingly presented on screen.

      Several minor characters add spiritual fire, down-home charm, and color to the film. These include the other tent-preaching evangelists, the diehard believer who consoles the de-churched Sonny with a biblical quotation, Sonny's hymn-singing possum-playing mother, and the two attention-seeking female African-American shouters. My favorite minor character is Elmo, the backwoods entrepreneur and radio station owner in Bayou Boutte . He delivers some of the best lines in the film. Explaining his station's policies regarding preachers desiring air-time, he says "It's pay before you pray," and "no speaking on tongues." Then, at the church picnic when a heathen fellow suddenly gets religion, he whispers into his microphone, as if he were broadcasting a critical putt at a major golf tournament, "This may be the first conversion broadcast live on the radio."

     The main thing missing in The Apostle are characters with weight and magnetism equal to Sonny's. Potential contenders remain largely undeveloped, their stories untold, their motivations not considered. For instance, in Bayou Boutte, our E.F. confronts a skeptical roughneck (Billy Bob Thornton). This man cannot stomach the sound of worship and does not like black folks. On church picnic day he rolls in on a bulldozer to "take down" the sanctuary. What follows is right out of an old-time revivalist's sermon: the prayers of the preacher and the power of the Word turn the heart of the sinner; the hard case breaks down; Holy Ghost power vanquishes hatred and wins not only a soul, but a Caterpillar, for the Lord.

     But this scene shows the transformation of a character to whom the film has given insufficient depth. In order to feel fully the drama of this man's conversion, we need to know more about him. We do not require every detail of his childhood, no long Joy Luck Club/Eve's Bayou flashbacks, just something to let us glimpse beyond his bad attitude, to understand what is going on beneath his rough exterior. This would clarify his rage and thus, underscore the gravitas of his conversion. Then we could more readily shout "Hallelujah!"

      Other characters and events remain sketchy. What happened to Sonny's brother Rodney? Why isn't he by the bedside of his dying momma? Other issues are papered over--how did a faction in Sonny's church oust him? "A vote according to the by-laws" is all we hear from a somber deacon whose next line is "I don't know else what to say." Occurring in a film that shows many churchgoers fond of Sonny, I wanted to shout at the screen, "How about explaining why folks voted this way?" We can guess they condemned Sonny's womanizing and spousal abuse, but a single line of dialogue confirming this would help.

      These same churchgoers defy traditional gender relations and tolerate adultery in a female religious leader. This contradicts the Bible-sanctioned codes of southern congregational life, as spelled out, for example, in Elaine Lawless's Handmaidens of the Lord, a study of the constraints faced by female Pentecostal pastors. In The Apostle when Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) shacks up with the youth minister and ditches her husband, she gains power in the church. As a work of art, The Apostle need not reflect reality. In this regard, it does not. Teachers using the film in classrooms may desire to point out this discrepancy.

     And then there is the astounding micro-watt radio transmitter that sends a crucial signal hundreds of miles away. From an upstairs studio in a bayou in central Louisiana, an announcement of E.F.'s revival reaches Jessie's clock radio deep in the heart of Texas. When she learns the location of her ex, now a fugitive wanted for murdering her lover, she calls the State Patrol who soon bring closure to E.F.'s evangelistic swan-song. The radio, in short, serves as the deux ex machina. It could happen, a signal can "skip" great distances thanks to unusual weather or perhaps sun-spot activity. But, in this instance, it feels forced.

      A better ending would have relied upon  

"Make Bayou Boutte's now impotent Rev. Charles Blackwell more vigorous, critical, or complicated and the film would become even more interesting, distinctive, and charged."

the intervention of one of the people in Bayou Boutte. Susie's husband, catching wind of E.F.'s romance with his wife, could have turned in the evangelist. The co-pastor, the local journalist, Susie herself, a parishioner, the Billy Bob character--almost any of these could have caused E.F.'s capture, had the film given them sufficient development. The best candidate for this role, however, is Sammy, the jump-suited mechanic. He could have betrayed E.F. out of jealousy, some warped desire to play Judas, or because of the disgust he feels when he learns of Sonny's crime. The film leans this way. Sammy overhears E.F. confess manslaughter to the co-pastor. During the final church service, as the State Patrol surround the sanctuary, Sammy seems caught up in some personal agony. Perhaps he has betrayed the master? This is an intriguing possibility, but the film veers away from blaming him and assigns responsibility to Sonny's estranged spouse. We are left to conclude that Sammy's agony was purely spiritual. A perhaps better--and likely longer--film would have surrounded E.F. with so many fully developed characters that the viewer could conceive of several of them finding themselves at cross-purposes with him. Instead, most characters in Bayou Boutt seem too innocent, too simple to contemplate betrayal.

     This sunny view may manifest Duvall's respect for the real life Christian folks he encountered while researching the film, some of whom appear in it along with professional actors. It may also reflect a current and popular way of depicting the rural South. Like several other recent films, The Apostle moralizes geography, contrasting rural ways with those of the city. As in "Devil's Advocate" and "Forrest Gump," this film favors the countryside, as if authenticity and goodness derive from contact with the soil. Jeffersonian agrarianism lives. In The Apostle an important image shows Sonny driving out of Dallas, the cold glass towers looming behind him as if he is fleeing a heartless place, the site of superficial spirituality and spontaneous violence. Called back to his hardscrabble roots, he ditches his car, then walks into a new life. As he crosses a bridge over a stream, he renames himself "the apostle." His self-baptism in a swamp follows soon afterwards. Away from the city, he thrives in a verdant domain where Christian faith triumphs.

      Bayou Boutte is not Eden, but problems that trouble the rest of the nation elude it. Race relations seem relaxed, if not romanticized. One scene, unfortunately, enacts paternalism. Two black female churchgoers behave like bickering children. E.F. has to correct them. Also worrisome is the fate reserved for several of the black men in this film. The first black preacher is blind; the fisherman who aids Sonny's transition is crippled; and Charles Blackwell, the black pastor, has retired because two heart attacks have left him unable to preach. Why are so many black men incapacitated in this film? A generous reading would say that this pattern indirectly registers the awful burdens racism imposes on black men. But will all viewers reach this conclusion? Might not some of them conclude that black men are simply not fit, and that black people need instruction from whites? While the film does not intend this outcome, those of us who write about it and teach it will do well to remind viewers of the actual history of the black church. For centuries, under the worst possible circumstances, African-Americans have created and maintained their own religious institutions. If they could sustain their spirits under slavery and Jim Crow, it is virtually certain they would not lose them in a bucolic place like Bayou Boutte.

      Such clarifications matter these days because of a troubling trend manifested in other recent films dealing with southern race relations. In Mississippi Burning the FBI has to rescue the civil rights movement when it is threatened by white racism. In Forrest Gump, a moronic white Southerner takes over generations-old African-American shrimping industry even though he has never manned a boat. In Primary Colors, the black grandson of a famous civil rights worker finds himself inspired by the social concerns expressed by a white southern governor. That he does this on the grounds of an intact antebellum plantation house is particularly chilling.

      The Apostle, with its charismatic white shepherd leading his needy, largely black flock, continues this pattern. But it also complicates the pattern by presenting several likeable, intelligent, and attractive black characters. It could have broken the pattern altogether by presenting them as E.F.'s equals. Make Bayou Boutte's now impotent Rev. Charles Blackwell more vigorous, critical, or complicated and the film would become even more interesting, distinctive, and charged. For example, Blackwell could ignobly see in E.F.'s ministry a means of revitalizing his own or countering that of another rival. He could use E.F. More nobly, Blackwell could agree to the relationship with E.F. because he desires to overcome a well-earned mistrust of white people. The film flirts with this possibility but only briefly. In spite of his initial hesitations upon meeting E.F., Blackwell becomes very kind and supportive. Free of the ego concerns that plague ordinary mortals, he eagerly helps E.F. hog the lime-light. Why does Blackwell give up his doubts so quickly? Why do they not resurface? Why are there no apparent conflicts between these two men?

      Given the biracial nature of the congregation, the film might naturally have focused on these two men's relationship. The two pastors could parry, then pray. Showing serious conflicts within the church--not just the bickering of two black female members--would mirror the complexities of life in the contemporary South as well as offer a positive model for dealing with them. And it would make an already remarkable film even better. The Apostle would then be as compelling and unconventional as its lead character, our beloved and remarkable E.F.

Joel Martin, Franklin and Marshall College

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

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