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The Apostle (1997)

January 7th, 2008 · No Comments

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A Pentecostal preacher in East Texas named Sonny (Robert Duvall) finds his life slowly unraveling. His estranged wife (Farrah Fawcett) has had enough of his wayward ways and has taken up with a youth minister. Fearing for her safety, she leads a majority of their congregation to dispel Sonny as pastor of the church he built. Showing up at his kids’ softball game drunk, Sonny hits his wife’s boyfriend in the head with a bat.

Notifying his best friend (Billy Joe Shaver) that the youth minister “might be on the road to glory”, Sonny dumps his Cadillac in a river and disappears on foot. The first person he encounters is a one-legged fisherman, who permits Sonny to stay the night in a pup tent in his yard. After watching the preacher baptize himself, the old man informs him that he has a cousin who is a retired pastor in the town of “Bayou Boutte”, Louisiana.

Journeying to Bayou Boutte, Sonny adopts the moniker “The Apostle E.F.” He introduces himself to the former Reverend Blackwell (John Beasley) by announcing he was sent by the Lord to have fellowship with him. The reverend doesn’t necessarily trust the stranger, but is intrigued enough to set up a new church with him. The Apostle befriends a mechanic (Walton Goggins), a radio deejay (Rick Dial) and a woman (Miranda Richardson) estranged from her husband.

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The Apostle quickly builds a church and endears himself to his tiny congregation. When a redneck (Billy Bob Thornton) interrupts his service, the Apostle takes him outside and whips him in a fight. While he seems to have an impact on everyone he comes across, the Apostle is unable to return home when his mother (June Carter Cash) becomes ill. Word of his church spreads, until Sonny’s wife hears him on the radio and alerts the authorities to his whereabouts.
Production history 
Robert Duvall was in rehearsals for the Off Broadway play The Days and Nights of Beebee Fenstermaker in 1962. To help prepare, the actor paid a visit to his character’s hometown of Hughes, Arkansas. With little else to do, Duvall wandered into a small church, where he witnessed his first Pentecostal service. He was affected by the “simplicity and understanding” of what he found there. He realized that preaching was “a distinct American art form” and became intrigued about portraying it accurately on film.

Duvall asked Horton Foote to write a script about a minister in a Holiness church. The playwright encouraged Duvall to write it himself. In the interim, the actor made his directorial debut with a pair of documentaries; We’re Not the Jet Set chronicled a rodeo family in Nebraska, and Angelo, My Love a community of Gypsies in New York. His continued fascination with preachers led him to sit in on Pentecostal services from Brooklyn to Tennessee to Los Angeles.

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Many of the sermons or stories Duvall overheard ended up in a script he wrote over a six-week period in 1984. But when it came time to secure financing, no one Duvall approached was interested. Most were either ignorant of the Pentecostal community or scared of it, or wanted the script to cover the corruption of preaching, like Elmer Gantry. Ultimately, Duvall received a call from his accountant, who notified his client that he had enough savings to finance the film himself.

Withdrawing $5 million from the bank and hiring himself as director, Duvall shot the film over a seven week period in the fall of 1996, mixing professional actors with ministers or congregation members from churches he’d visited. After a screening at the Toronto Film Festival, October Films stepped up to distribute The Apostle. The film was a critical sensation – earning Duvall an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor – and made back its investment by grossing $20 million in the U.S.

Of the many reasons The Apostle is a classic – a career performance by Robert Duvall, exceptional work by its non-actors, rich dialogue, its nonjudgmental gaze into another culture – what’s most beautiful about the film is its ability to deal with Southerners as human beings instead of caricatures. The film has real vitality, yet is paced in such a way that it could exist in almost any time period. In a testament to the film’s appeal, it was endorsed by both the Independent Spirit Awards and The 700 Club.

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“Duvall’s script is one of subtle grace and beauty. The Apostle is clearly a man of God, but this is not the type of minister we are used to seeing in a film. This man is deeply flawed, capable of great anger and even greater pride … yet, he has clearly surrendered his life to the Lord and is willing to start over again and again and again,” writes Richard Propes at The Peaceful Critic.

Danel Griffin at Film as Art writes, “Painstaking detail was placed into getting the theology right, as well as the mannerisms and slang of the characters and the look of the towns and churches. By the end of The Apostle, we have an appreciation for the Southern way of life, and we also recognize that an often misunderstood religious group consists of people not much different from the rest of us.”

“This is entirely Duvall’s film. He gives himself a T-bone of a role … It is what was once known as a tour-de-force, a piece of acting that lifts you into the air and spins your head around. He shows the contradictory aspects of the preacher’s character and makes them fit the man. He has charm, energy, humour and determination. There is also conceit, anguish, stubbornness and rage,” writes Angus Wolfe Murray at Eye for Film.

View the January 29, 1998 episode of The Charlie Rose Show and Rose’s 60 minute+ interview with Robert Duvall about The Apostle and his career.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Famous line · Mother/son relationship · Road trip · Small town

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