The Apostle (Dir. Robert Duvall) is a film about a religious man, not about religion. Much was made of the film’s respect for religious faith and religious people when it was released in 1991. The Apostle does portray religion in a serious way, without irony or undertones of sarcasm. It even indulges in moments of mystery—when Sonny “saves” a young man seriously injured in a car wreck, and when he “saves” an angry construction worker (Billy Bob Thornton) who has threatened to demolish his church with a bulldozer. Religion is more the context of the film than the subject. The subject is Sonny, a deeply flawed man who derives gratification from his ability to preach and save souls, and who’s also susceptible to more venal indulgences. it's suggested he womanizes, and he drives a Cadillac, and it’s clear that he measures his own worth by his ability to build and keep a church. Yet he’s also a man who wants to make amends, to be better than himself. His desire for fame and power conflict with his need for redemption, and the riddle of his character revolves around this conundrum.
Southern films rarely show religion in a realistic manner . Usually it’s simply an incidental element. We know in Gone with the Wind that the O’Hara family is religious because we see them holding a devotional early in the film. Intruder in the Dust opens with a church bell tolling on a Sunday morning in Jefferson as worshippers sit in church. Some recent films show religion as both a target of humorous jabs and as a dimension of Southern mystery. In the film Borat it’s an aspect of backwoods degeneracy—one scene focuses on a fundamentalist church of ecstatic dancing and speaking in tongues. The documentary Searching for the One-Eyed Jesus offers a similar view couched in a respectful aura of soul-searching that is really just an invitation to voyeuristic spectacle. Of the few films that attempt to deal with religion in a realistic way, I’d Climb the Highest Mountain is notable. Based on an autobiographical account by Georgia novelist Corra Harris about her life with a circuit-riding Methodist minister, the film dramatizers the experiences of a young woman as she settles down with her husband in his first assignment in a North Georgia mountain church. The film is pious without being too sentimental, and it takes seriously the preacher’s efforts along with those of his wife to adjust to their assignment. John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood is another film that pays serious attention to Southern religion, though with some satiric as well as serious intent.
The Apostle, written and directed by Robert Duvall, who portrays the main character Sonny, focuses on religious Pentecostalism of the Southern variety. Mega churches, speaking in tongues, tent revivals in which energy and yelling count more than fidelity to the Biblical text, the possibility of scandal, the admixture of faith and violence and sex and ambition—these are its setting. The Apostle inhabits and presents with respect the same fundamentalist world that Borat ridicules. The film seems to argue that outside the corporate mega churches of big-city religion is a genuine, simple form of worship that serves an authentic purpose. The Apostle presents us with a string of characters—a retired preacher, an auto mechanic, a disk jockey, a young woman separated from her husband, and others who have lost their churches or lost their way and who need the support that religion can provide. They are waiting there in in the small isolated Louisiana town of Bayou Butté for someone to arrive and start a church. Then Sonny comes to town.
Building a new church is Sonny’s way of seeking to expiate his crimes (which include the probable murder of his former wife’s boyfriend). Chastened by the loss of his mega-church (his wife and other church members vote him out of the pastorate for reasons that that probably have to do with misuse of funds or womanizing or both), his ambitions are now more modest. Any church will do. The Apostle chronicles how Sonny builds the church by befriending townspeople who have lost their own churches, or who need one. Always the entrepreneur, Sonny cooks burgers in a restaurant to raise money for the church. He finds an old bus, preaches on the local radio station, attracts a small congregation of both black and white worshippers. Yet he never makes known his past or his true name: he calls himself the Apostle E. F., and although one or two people ask him about his name he is evasive and it never becomes a real issue. Whatever Sonny’s conflicted reasons for building this church might be, the film does not question his sincerity for doing so, and even when the state police come to take him away, his congregation remains faithful. The last time we see him he is leading a chain gang in call and response song and preaching the Word.
Sonny is the center of the film. The conflicting elements of his imperfect self pose a puzzle that the movie exposes but does not solve. We’re left with an imperfect, sinful man who may have committed murder and who strives to make amends, to build a church that serves others. His new church lacks all the glitter and spectacle of his former church—there is no speaking in tongues, no luxurious building, no electronic guitars—just simple, authentic worship. Yet Sonny seeks to redeem himself on his own terms, rather than God’s terms, or the Law’s terms. He runs away from his crime. He drives his Cadillac into a lake so it can’t be found. He rebaptizes himself and gives himself a new name: the Apostle E. F.. The new name is of course a sign of his desire to make a new life. Yet it’s also an alias that hides his crime. His takes refuge in a remote and small Louisiana town where he hopes and expects that no one will know about him. The good that he does , the people whom his church there serves—all is built on the foundation of his deceit.
I have viewed The Apostle on a number of occasions. It initially left me deeply moved. Not religious myself, I nonetheless was taken with its straightforward and unironic presentation of people who are. Robert Duvall’s performance as Sonny is one of the best of his career, if not the best. The smaller characters whom he meets in Bayou Boutté are interesting and endearing. The story of this man trying to make amends for his life was impressive. On repeated viewings, Duvall’s performance remains strong, as does the wealth of minor characters, but the flaws and conflicting elements in Sonny’s character, and the relative formlessness of the film have begun to weigh on my reactions. The film is a bit too long. Some scenes are gratuitously inserted for dramatic effect and do not advance the plot. An example is the scene in which Sonny “saves” the bulldozer driver (Billy Bob Thornton) who threatens to push the church down. The scene is stirringly orchestrated, with members of the congregation arrayed around Sonny, protecting the church and also reacting to, supporting, Sonny’s ministrations to the man who threatens him. We see how zealous and effective Sonny is as a preacher, how the strength of his faith enables him to undertake actions that in themselves might seem almost miraculous. Yet there is the faint suspicion in this scene that the conversion is simply another hash mark on Sonny’s tally sheet, like the saved young man in the wrecked automobile early in the film. Increasingly I have come to feel that this scene is inauthentic, manipulative, and false. It contributes to the film in the same way as the car chase in Bullitt.
My students have had two predominant reactions to the film: one group of students felt that it was basically an invasion of privacy. They saw it as voyeuristic and intrusive. How a film can unfairly intrude on the private experiences of its characters is a question to ponder. (Literature does this all the time). What these students were really reacting against, I suspect, was the film’s intrusion on their own private religious impulses—the film delves into a territory rarely entered and it does so in a direct way. Another objection was that the film “is too religious.” This objection came from students who were not religious as well as from ones who were. Most of my students come from a large metropolitan Southern city. Their experiences with religion are through conventional mostly Protestant churches. Few of these students have experience with Pentecostal worship . They are mostly reacting to the otherness of what the film portrays, which is outside their experience.
An interesting division became apparent when I taught the film most recently. The class consisted of ten white students, one Hispanic student, one Muslim student, and three African Americans. The Muslim student paid close attention to the film but ultimately chose not to speak about it—as a Muslim, he said in a heavy Southern accent, he didn’t know what to make of it. The Hispanic student, a Roman Catholic, agreed with the white students (for the most part) , who were uncomfortable with the film’s portrayal of what they regarded as an extreme form of worship. The three African American students, all women, reported that they enjoyed the film. One student, the daughter of a minister, said that portrayal of religious worship in The Apostle was exactly what she had grown up with.
The Apostle attempts to show religious worship in a racially ecumenical way. E. F.’s church is open to all races, black and white, young and old, male and female. But of all the people who assist Sonny with starting the church, only one, a retired minister, is actually black. The others are white males. Many of the minor characters, members of the congregation, provide humor and detail. There are two black women who compete with one another for piety and attention. There are two little black boys, cute and mischievous. There’s an old black man who plays a trumpet. As a young child, Sonny’s first experience with a church is an all black church to which he is taken by the black woman who looks after him . Thus we are to know that Sonny grew up with a racially blind sense of religious worship. The film itself, however sincere it may be, relegates most of the black characters to secondary roles that often, though not consistently, show them in a humorous light.