Historians seeking to understand the mind of Bill Clinton will surely make much of the fact that just three days after the White House found itself engulfed in sexual scandal, the president of the United States was conspicuously in attendance at a screening of The Apostle, a film about a Pentecostal preacher from Texas who becomes caught up in mortal sin, rebaptizes and renames himself, and flees to Louisiana, there to start a new, racially integrated church of his own. It isn’t hard to imagine what the president must have seen—or thought he saw—in such a plot, but if he found any comfort in the story of the Rev. Euliss F. “Sonny” Dewey and his search for redemption, he might do well to watch it again, this time more closely.
Robert Duvall, who plays Sonny, wrote, directed, and financed The Apostle himself, having found no one else willing to take a chance on a script in which an evangelist is presented sympathetically, and he has further contrived to give a starring performance that is charismatic in both senses of the word. Decked out in white suit and sunglasses and charged with what he calls “Holy Ghost power” to the point of dancing an ecstatic jig before his delighted flock, Sonny Dewey is no caricature, but a full-length portrait of a Christ-haunted sinner who lives to spread the Word (“Mama, we made news in Heaven this morning!”). Yet The Apostle is more than just a tour de force: It is also a richly detailed study of the culture of Pentecostalism, directed with self-effacing clarity and full of the kind of nuanced observation that repays multiple viewings.
That such a film should have been made by an actor all but defies belief, for religion in the movies has typically meant either Going My Way or Inherit the Wind, with next to nothing in between. One keeps waiting for Duvall to put a foot wrong, to lapse carelessly into the sniggering contempt with which the Hollywood elite regard the religious beliefs of their benighted clientele—but it never happens. Indeed, the strength of The Apostle derives in large part from the fact that its maker is not out to expose anybody or anything. Rather, he takes Christianity seriously, and seeks to show in a straightforward, uncondescending manner how it can transform the lives of otherwise ordinary people.
Certain critics have suggested that The Apostle prettifies Pentecostalism, and they have a point: Duvall’s script contains only a single glancing reference to the practice of speaking in tongues, and his portrayal of Sonny as a man whom suffering and grace have freed from the shackles of intolerance is sometimes too good to be true. I nearly laughed out loud at a scene in which he catches sight of a Catholic priest, smiles to himself, and mutters, “You do it your way, I do it mine, but we get it done, don’t we?” In fact, Sonny’s real-life counterpart would more likely have cursed the Whore of Babylon and walked briskly away. But the things Duvall gets right more than make up for these lapses of candor. He has a canny eye for the surface details of southern life, from the Sears & Roebuck furnishings in Sonny’s living room to the gaudy electric sign that leads worshippers to his country church. His cast, part professional and part amateur, is altogether ideal (who could have guessed that Miranda Richardson would make the perfect small-town radio station receptionist?), as is David Mansfield’s twangy, sharply flavored musical score.
Most important of all, Duvall gets Sonny right. To be sure, the manner in which he embarks on his pilgrimage is awkwardly melodramatic—he beats his wife’s lover to death with a baseball bat—but nearly everything else about him is believable, not least his own transformation from charming Sonny Dewey, the hard-drinking womanizer who makes an easy living as the upwardly mobile pastor of the Temple of the Living God, to the painfully earnest Apostle E. F., who preaches every Sunday at the One Way Road to Heaven Holiness Temple of Bayou Boutte, Louisiana, and spends the rest of the week working as a grease monkey and short-order cook.
Is Sonny an ignorant zealot, or a vessel of God’s illimitable grace? The answer, of course, is that he is both, and it is Duvall’s singular achievement to have made him so real that we never question for a moment the power of these two overlapping identities to simultaneously occupy the same tortured soul. The pulpit is the place where his disparate parts are fused together by the burning heat of faith, and it is in the worship sequences of The Apostle that we best see how completely Duvall has penetrated the Pentecostal idiom. Viewers who have never attended a Holiness service may suspect him of exaggeration, but these scenes are entirely true to life (save for the fact that he never speaks in tongues), and Linda Burton, the production designer, deserves full credit for ensuring that the interior of the One Way Road to Heaven Holiness Temple is correct to the last shabby detail. To see the Apostle E. F. standing in the aisle of a sweltering clapboard church stripped of all ornament but a cheap chromo of Jesus, hoarsely stuttering spiritual platitudes, and waving his Living Bible like a blunt instrument, is to behold a spectacle at once tragic and thrilling.
Duvall makes no claims to theological sophistication, so it is unlikely that he intended The Apostle to serve as a commentary on the splendors and miseries of emotional religion. Yet it is precisely because his eye and ear are so keen that he inadvertently inspires us to reflect on the terrible solitude of the enthusiast, cast adrift in a world devoid of any spiritual authority save that which he imposes on himself. As I watched the Apostle E. F. basking in the inner light, flogging his congregation to still greater heights of raw emotion, I found myself thinking of the sober Quaker counsel of Hannah Smith, cited by Ronald Knox in Enthusiasm:
I would place at the entrance into the pathway of mysticism this danger signal: beware of impressions, beware of emotions, beware of physical thrills, beware of voices, beware of everything, in short, that is not according to the strict Bible standard and to your own highest reason.
To which Knox, whose lifelong study of the history of mysticism had made him all too familiar with the chaos that inevitably follows whenever revelation is exalted over reason, crisply replied, “The Bible, what a weapon to put into such hands!”
Hardly less impressive is Duvall’s intuitive grasp of the concept of redemption. Despite his good works, Sonny isn’t let off with a speeding ticket at film’s end: Instead, he surrenders meekly to the state police, and we see him working on a chain gang as the credits roll, fervently preaching to his fellow prisoners, who respond with equal (and startling) fervor to his impassioned cries of “Jesus! Jesus!” Anyone still inclined to dismiss The Apostle as a cosmeticized version of evangelical Christianity will likely have his mind changed by this scene, which leaves no doubt that while sinners can do God’s work through God’s grace, there can be no redemption without repentance—a notion as alien to Hollywood as the idea of sin itself. As for President Clinton, perhaps he was too busy hobnobbing with his celebrity guests to pay attention to that part.