My brother Pete--Brother Phil, as he was known among his flock--used to be a Pentecostal preacher down in Anna, Illinois, a small town close to the Kentucky and Missouri borders. He and Brother Glenn (who was like the Ed McMahon to Pete's Johnny Carson) hadn't attended a seminary or anything. They were simply filled with the Holy Spirit and felt called upon to spread the word of God. I must confess that, on those occasions when I attended their services, the word of God didn't appear to be spreading very fast. We were usually the only three there. Which didn't stop Pete from launching into sermons that seemed directed at some imaginary congregation only he could see. I don't believe in God, but I've never doubted that he exists for Pete. This is by way of introducing Robert Duvall's The Apostle, which never stops believing in God, no matter what trials and tribulations its main character puts himself through. In addition to writing, directing and producing the movie with $5 million of his own money--talk about faith!--Duvall stars as Euliss "Sonny" Dewey, a Pentecostal preacher from East Texas who's so intent on saving souls that he's been known to approach the victims of a car crash before the ambulance has even gotten there, smooth-talking his captive audience into accepting Jesus Christ as their savior. A charismatic charismatic, Sonny has built himself one hell of a church over the years. Alas, there's trouble in paradise. For when Sonny isn't a holy man, he's just a man--a vain man who both beats and cheats on his wife (Farrah Fawcett). And when he finds out that his wife has been cheating on him? With the church's Youth Minister, no less? Then Sonny becomes even less than a man; he becomes a wild animal. He stays up all night shouting at God, and the next day, at a Little League game, he tries to solve all his problems with a baseball bat. Of course, the baseball bat only causes him more problems--too many witnesses. So he has to hit the road, casting off his old life and seeking a place where he can be born again. That turns out to be a little Louisiana town called Bayou Boutte. But along the way, like Saul on the road to Damascus, Sonny sees the light, baptizing himself and changing his name to "the Apostle E.F." Many non-Christians will question whether Sonny has, in fact, seen the light. His behavior doesn't change: He still gets into fights, and he's soon courting the secretary (Miranda Richardson) at the local radio station. Nor does Sonny seem to feel very guilty over what he's done. Wouldn't a real man of God turn himself in? Perhaps the greatest thing Duvall has achieved in The Apostle is allowing Sonny to find his own path to salvation. For Sonny is less interested in the laws and bylaws of this world than in the "signs and wonders" sent to this world from the next. Acting on what the rest of us would call a hunch, he meets with a retired black minister (John Beasley) and convinces him to let Sonny take over his old congregation. It appears the sinner will redeem himself by first redeeming others. Thus is born "The One-Way Road to Heaven" Church, which may be the most authentic collection of God-fearing, God-loving Pentecostals ever put on the big screen. Thanks to folks like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and that swaggering braggart Jimmy Swaggart, we all have an image in our minds of what it means to be a Pentecostal preacher--Holy Roller as high roller. (The movies have seconded that motion, from Elmer Gantry to Steve Martin's blasphemously inept Leap of Faith.) What The Apostle does is return Pentecostalism to its roots in Southern poverty. Like his televangelist counterparts, Sonny has committed his share of sexual indiscretions; hell, he's wanted for murder back in Texas. But he's never thought in terms of hitting the big time--not in this life, anyway. Duvall, who just received an Oscar nomination for his performance, has walked a mile in Sonny's shoes, touring Southern houses of worship to soak up their cadences and gestures. He's entirely believable as a Pentecostal preacher, though perhaps less believable as an especially charismatic one. This is an art form with many, many masters, any one of whom could improvise an entire sermon off a single Bible verse. Like jazz, Pentecostal preaching springs from black culture, and Duvall's careful to limit the screen time of the movie's black preachers, lest they make him look like Vanilla Ice next to their Ice-T. Still, Sonny obviously has something that brings the mostly black residents of Bayou Boutte flocking to his church. Perhaps it's that he seems to need saving as much as they do.
For all his fire and brimstone, Duvall gives a remarkably interior performance. We never quite understand Sonny, nor are we supposed to. The performance, like the movie, may suffer from too much integrity, however. Duvall has worked so hard to do justice to these people that he's allowed it to sap some of the movie's dramatic energy. As hot as the church sermons are, the rest of the scenes are a little rough and a little stiff, like a cross carved from a tree stump. Still, it's nothing short of amazing to see a feature film that neither praises nor condemns Pentecostals. Building yet another church from scratch, Sonny finds redemption in the only place he knows to look for it--in his own not-all-that-troubled heart. And why should Sonny's heart be troubled? He's got God on his side. Say "Amen," somebody.