THERE WAS A wonderful series of ads in the '60s that showed people of various ethnicities munching happily on deli sandwiches and proclaimed, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's Real Jewish Rye." Well, you don't have to be born again to love "The Apostle." This little knockout of a movie, written and directed by Robert Duvall -- who also plays the title character, a roving Texas evangelist -- can strike you in the same way that Bible stories did when you first encountered them as a child. The story "The Apostle" tells is simple, plain, even stark. And yet, its meaning is teasingly mysterious.
"The Apostle" takes place in Fort Worth and a small bayou town in Louisiana. But for most of us, I'd guess, the well-appointed churches, Chautauqua tents, and roughhewn backwoods tabernacles that Duvall's character (his nickname is Sonny, but he calls himself "The Apostle E.F.") preaches in are as exotic and alien as the ancient civilizations of the Bible. The experience of watching "The Apostle" is a little like the way Greil Marcus described Al Green's "The Belle Album," the record Green made after a horrendous personal catastrophe led him to Christ. "Wandering through country bars and down Southern back roads," Marcus wrote of Green, "he let you share a sense of peace." "The Apostle" lets you share that peace, too. Before it comes, though, in the movie's extraordinarily moving final scene, you share the turmoil of Sonny's soul.
In a stroke of inspired simplicity, Duvall has chosen to tell "The Apostle" as if it were a Bible story. Beginning in Old Testament fury and atonement, the movie ends in New Testament acceptance and forgiveness. Basically, this is a parable about a sinner who offends God, sheds the trappings of his earthly life and goes into the wilderness to win back the Lord's favor through good works.
Sonny got the call at 12 and has been preaching ever since. He doesn't care whether his congregation is a convention of men in neat business suits, a crowd at a scrubby revival tent or convicts on a road gang: He gives them all what he calls his "Holy Ghost power" at full wattage. His assistant and best friend Joe (country music legend Billy Joe Shaver, who has the pared-down resolve of a man who stepped back from the brink) is one of his converts, rescued from a life of crime. Sonny can't even pass by a car crash without stopping to convert an injured young couple. When he succeeds, even looking death in the face isn't enough to dispel his jubilation. He walks away saying, "Glory! Glory!" and when he returns to his car, where his elderly mother (a very amusing June Carter Cash) is waiting, he exults, "We made news in Heaven this morning, mamma!" Not much later, Sonny makes news in Fort Worth when he bashes in the head of the young assistant minister who's taken up with his wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett). Taking it on the lam, Sonny sinks his car in a lake, tosses away all his identification, baptizes himself anew and sets out to build a new church and congregation. His travels lead him to rural Louisiana and Reverend Blackwell (the wonderful John Beasley, with his easy, gracious charm),
a retired minister who helps Sonny restore the clapboard church his own health forced him to abandon.
Practically the first thing Rev. Blackwell asks Sonny is, "Why should I trust you?" It's a good question. Something of a showboater, Sonny appears to need to exalt himself almost as much as he does God. After Jesse succeeds in getting him expelled from his pulpit, he shows up at services in black shades and a sharpster's white suit, jumping right up on the altar and showily putting a hundred-dollar bill in the offering. The fervor that spills out of Sonny is uncomfortably close to his rage; at times, you can't tell whether he's exhorting God or haranguing him. It's creepy when he snips Jessie's head from the family picture he carries with him (as if he could fill in the face when someone else takes her place) and even creepier when he restores her to the picture at an awkward angle. On the road Sonny meets a man gracious enough to let him camp out in his backyard, but the fellow is also wary enough to sleep with his shotgun.
Duvall gives us lots of reasons why we shouldn't trust Sonny, and then complicates things by expecting us to trust Sonny the only way we can: by taking a leap of faith. He fixes it so we can deny neither Sonny's need to make himself the center of attention nor the genuineness of his belief. Duvall doesn't provide the easy out of making Sonny a snake-oil salesman and the congregation he builds at his One Way Road to Heaven church the suckers who fall under his spell. It's easy to see the enthusiasm and energy and, yes, the showmanship they respond to in Sonny. Duvall doesn't try to solve Sonny's mystery: He puts his openness and affability right next to his anger, his generosity right next to his possessiveness, his humility right next to his pride, his sanctification right next to his earthiness.
It's in the exhilarating worship scenes where Duvall hits full throttle. He jumps into them with the possessed energy of a man in a race for his life and the quick-wittedness of one who thinks on his feet. The performances Duvall has given in recent years in movies like "Days of Thunder," "The Paper" and "A Family Thing" have the juice that was missing from the steely recessiveness that earned him praise in "Tender Mercies." His work in "The Apostle," which combines a master actor's control with a showman's wiles, is the best of his career. There's such a strong sexual vibe to Sonny's preaching, it would be amazing if he weren't a womanizer. It's no wonder that Toosie (Miranda Richardson, here as natural and unfussy as she usually is actressy), the receptionist at the local radio station, responds to his sermons with a flirty little smile and his kisses as if she'd just taken a deliciously sweet sip of lemonade. And it's no wonder that after years of living with Sonny's inexhaustible energy, Jessie's frayed nerves are right on the surface. Farrah Fawcett gives a tense, compact performance. At one point Jessie tells Sonny, "We prayed together since before we were married -- my knees are worn out."
With its use of overlapping dialogue and storytelling that unfolds instead of being laid out, "The Apostle" recalls the open-ended freedom that characterized American movies in the early '70s. For Duvall, directing appears to be a process of discovery and improvisation (he's superb with actors) rather than one that follows a set blueprint. And yet the movie never meanders. Cinematographer Barry Markowitz's images are unusually sharp and clear, as spare and uncluttered as Sonny's whitewashed country church. The look of the movie is as straightforward as Duvall's direction.
"The Apostle's" deliberate lack of irony may throw some people. We're so used to seeing big-time evangelists who are obvious charlatans, so used to the transparent power grabs of the religious right, that you may find yourself sitting through "The Apostle" waiting for Sonny to be unmasked. But Sonny isn't a phony. The movie presents his deeds as matter-of-factly as miracles are presented in the Bible, without fuss or explanation. We're asked to accept that a young woman near death after a car wreck begins to move again after Sonny prays for her, or that a man (Billy Bob Thornton, pulling off a startling cameo with a tricky emotional shift) who arrives at a Sunday picnic to bulldoze Sonny's church would be stopped simply by Sonny laying his Bible in front of the machine and then, in tears, would be converted to Jesus. In the context of the film these incidents seem as natural as the raising of Lazarus. Like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan, Thornton's character (referred to simply as "Troublemaker" in the credits) simply appears to play his part in a story about faith as comfort in the face of almost unbearable hardship. We don't know who he is, and it's not important. What is important is that some burden seems lifted from him.
Duvall understands that in rural communities (particularly Southern ones) church isn't just where you worship, it's where you socialize, it's a form of entertainment. At one point, a black woman herds her small twin boys onto the bus bound for Sonny's church telling them, "We're gon' praise the Lord. We'll have a good time," and looking at her decked out in her Sunday best, who could doubt it? (There are few sights more colorful, stylish and joyful in American life than the sight of African-American women dressed for church.)
For us nonbelievers, the appeal of "The Apostle" is something like the appeal of gospel music. What's wonderful about gospel -- a sound full of honest dirt and honest sweat that seems to have its roots deep in the earth as it reaches toward heaven -- has everything to do with this world, just as the faces of Sonny's congregation look both transported and radiantly human. "The Apostle" honors its subject by seeing its contradictions as part of a whole. That's why the most exultant hymn we hear, "I'll Fly Away," is about facing death, and why Sonny finds his greatest peace when the time comes to pay for his sins. This continually surprising film didn't make me long for the next world, but it did make me exult in the possibility of what waits around the next bend in the road in this one. And that seems like miracle enough.