Journal of Southern Religion

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

        Although Robert Duvall researched, wrote, directed, and starred in The Apostle, perhaps his most important contribution to the film’s apparent critical and financial success has been his tireless work as chief publicity agent. For the past several months, Duvall has been almost omnipresent in Christian and secular media, hawking The Apostle as the positive affirmation of Pentecostal evangelism and southern folk religion that Hollywood refused to make. Duvall has repeatedly testified about the thirteen frustrating years he searched for a studio willing to take on his script before finally deciding to finance the project with five million dollars of his own money. Further establishing the purity of his motives, Duvall recently explained to Charisma magazine that Pentecostal preaching is “one of the true American art forms” and should be treated with respect by the filmmaker--an obvious allusion to the spate of clumsy Hollywood characterizations of evangelists, most recently in the wake of the Bakker and Swaggart follies.

"In some ways, The Apostle risks creating a stereotype more demeaning to Pentecostals than any Hollywood has produced before."

     Early reviewers, even scholarly ones, have applauded Duvall’s effort, consistently praising the “great sensitivity” and “loving care” evident in his portrayal of Pentecostal culture. Indeed, he gets many things right, especially in the details. Several of the most effective scenes, for instance, feature real Pentecostals preaching, praising, or testifying. Also, Duvall makes a remarkable effort to inhabit the world of Pentecostal expression through his portrayal of Texas pastor-evangelist Dewey “Sonny” Euless. Sonny’s brief sermons seldom stray far from the ritual language of southern folk preachers, and he convincingly punctuates them with such recognizable physical gestures as the Holy Ghost hop and leg kick. In addition, his fondness for radio preaching, faith in the healing power of anointed prayer cloths, and attraction to soul-stirring music all ring true. Sonny even turns out to possess a Howard Finster-like talent for painting colorful church signs and buses.

     As delicious as these details are, Duvall’s greatest accomplishment in The Apostle is his insistence that an understanding of prayer as a dialogue with God resides at the core of Pentecostal spirituality. Early in the film, while on the revival circuit, Sonny is suddenly awakened by a dream of his wife’s infidelity. He springs from his hotel bed, thanking God for this revelation as he yanks on his pants. Sonny drives the rest of the night to find his wife’s car parked in his assistant pastor’s driveway. Jessie Euless, it turns out, is not only sleeping with the younger minister; she has also conspired with him to take over Sonny’s Temple. As a distraught Sonny awaits divine direction in his mother’s attic, he reminds the Lord, “You’ve always called me Sonny and I’ve always called you Jesus.” This long-standing intimacy notwithstanding, Sonny fails to hear a clear word from God, takes refuge in a bottle of Wild Turkey, and ends up savagely attacking his wife’s lover with a baseball bat. Fleeing certain arrest, he once again begins to discern the guiding voice of the Lord. Led by dreams, omens, and illuminated scripture passages, Sonny ultimately re-baptizes himself as the Apostle E. F. and makes his way to a small Louisiana town. In Bayou Boutte, he attempts to redeem himself by helping Brother Blackwell, an aging black preacher, revive his dream of building the One Way to Heaven Holiness Temple.

     In chronicling Sonny’s determined struggle to hear God’s voice, Duvall captures the enthusiastic dimension of Pentecostal faith better than most historians of the movement. However, a serious omission mars his representation of southern folk Pentecostalism. Neither as Sonny nor as the Apostle E. F. does the central character display any detectable remorse for his murderous assault or for the persistent womanizing which had driven his wife to find affection with another man. In fact, no one repents in this film, suggesting that Duvall does not find the battle against sin central to Pentecostal experience. Sonny’s converts do not actually confess their sins but find salvation merely by “accepting Jesus” into their hearts. His most faithful disciple in Texas, Joe, easily mixes church talk and profanity, usually while holding a suspicious-looking aluminum can. Sonny’s sainted mother regularly feigns death in order to manipulate her son. Sonny himself lies to Brother Blackwell about being led to him by a God-given dream, and shortly afterwards he attempts to seduce a married (if separated) secretary who has started attending his church. Pentecostal moviegoers--who understand that the Holy Spirit desires to lead believers into purity as well as personal empowerment--will likely come away from these scenes complaining that Duvall doesn’t quite get it. They would be right.

     Even Jimmy Swaggert looked into the camera and tearfully acknowledged, “I am a sinner.” Duvall can not bring his character to do this, leaving viewers with a tale long on sin but short on repentance. What’s new about this? At least Elmer Gantry and other Bible-thumping charlatans of the cinema knew they were not full of the Holy Ghost. In some ways, The Apostle risks creating a stereotype more demeaning to Pentecostals than any Hollywood has produced before.

Daniel Woods, Ferrum College

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

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