Robert Duvall specializes in quirky rednecks. Here, he has written himself a role that goes much deeper than the usual things he plays. Akin to the conscience-stricken country singer in 'Tender Mercies', Duvall's Sonny speaks to his God as did the Old Testament prophets. Is this pathological? No, it's faith, and millions of Americans have it.
Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are no believers in Hollywood churches. Religious faith is rarely understood by the entertainment industry, because their way of making it entertaining is to mock it, to wink at the audience, to 'expose' it as fraud.
Sonny is no fraud. He is a man of God, a servant of the Lord, but he's very, very human and his human passions get him in trouble - with women, with the law. I think the point of Duvall's heart-felt film is that Sonny's contrition, after running away from his crime and changing his name, takes the form of rebuilding a church in a place where it's been lost. He atones for his sins by serving those people who need such a church. Yet it's his ego that gets him in trouble - again. He takes to the radio waves (where some of our best preachers seem to reside), and he's caught, because there's no mistaking his brand of brimstone.
I like this movie because it's true to itself. It's hard for me, and probably a few other film critics, to imagine myself in a fundamentalist church singing praises to the Lord, although it's not hard to imagine ourselves sitting in the dark watching flickering screens for hours on end and worshipping false idols. (Get thee behind me, Cinema!) But watching Robert Duvall is always a privilege, and never more so than when he sinks his teeth into a 'real' character. His energy makes him likeable, no matter how much of a jerk his character is.
Duvall has written a script that is short on story, long on
character and even longer on realism. His camera takes us through the
South like few cameras can. He is at home there, and it feels right.
Years from now, 'The Apostle' will be a measure of authenticity and
honesty in filmmaking, at a time when Hollywood never seemed more
remote from the lives of its viewers.
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