BOSTON — Partway through Robert Duvall's new film about a Southern evangelist, a Louisiana redneck astride a bulldozer confronts the One Way to Heaven church and its integrated congregation.
In full view of the members, who are having a bake sale, the pastor, played by Mr. Duvall, puts a Bible in front of the huge iron blade and says, "no more." The redneck tries to move the Good Book but breaks down crying. The pastor follows him to the ground, pleading that he not be embarrassed about faith: "It's OK to cry," he says, "I'll cry with you."
"The Apostle," which opened in 50 cities around the country last week, is already becoming a phenomenon - an unusual achievement for a film that deals directly with religion and redemption. Even religion scholars, many of whom are skeptical of faith on film, say the movie is the first authentic portrayal of a religious style whose believers are a large, growing subculture in the United States.
"It's the most explicit treatment of evangelical religious sensibility I've seen," says Harvey Cox, who led a discussion about "The Apostle" with the Harvard Divinity School faculty after a private screening last week. "One is stunned by Duvall's performance. But beyond that, it is a film about sin and redemption, something Dostoevskian, deeply theological, not churchy. It's in-your-face theology."
Hollywood seldom deals head on with faith. Indeed, Duvall's "The Apostle" was rejected for 13 years by producers. While faith may enter a script as a foil or plot device, few films have dealt centrally - and sympathetically - with ordinary churchgoing people trying live their lives as if God existed. "The Hollywood line is, 'How could interesting stories emerge from such uninteresting people?' " a critic notes wryly.
Fresh portrayal of ministers
Movie characterizations of ministers, too, depict spiritual leaders who are either ineffectually meek and mild, or hypocritical shysters as in Burt Lancaster's classic "Elmer Gantry." In the 1992 film "A River Runs Through It," the minister-father gives a moving sermon about finding ways to love those who reject love. But religion there is tucked into a family story. It is not the center of the story, as it is in "The Apostle."
"The Apostle" is "the first picture in modern times that accurately portrays a holiness-style white preacher without making him an object of ridicule or evil personified," says James Wall, editor of The Christian Century.
For Duvall, who not only stars in the film but who also wrote and directed it, "The Apostle" was an act of faith - one he financed for $5 million. Its genesis dates to the early 1960s, when Duvall was working in rural Arkansas and marveled at the cadence and rhythms at meetings of small-town revivalists. Not until 1984 did he have time to write a screenplay, but no Hollywood studio would touch it.
Now everyone wants a piece. Film critic Janet Maslin of The New York Times rates "The Apostle" as the second best film of the year, after the epic "Titanic." The Chicago Tribune says it establishes Duvall as "the finest male actor" in the US. Cognoscenti expect an Oscar nomination. Even President Clinton watched the film at the White House on the weekend before his State of the Union performance Jan. 27.
Critical acclaim includes awards ranging from the National Society of Film Critics to the Los Angeles Film Critics Association to generous spreads in newsweeklies like Time.
Commercially, it was the hottest per capita seller last weekend - not surprising, given the buildup. ("The Apostle" is in 50 theaters; "Titanic" opened last month in 3,000.) On Saturday, the 7:30 p.m. show in the Upper West Side in Manhattan sold out at 1 p.m. "We've been selling out 3 of 4 shows," says Michael Silberman, a vice president of October Films, the distributor. "If we only did half that well, we'd be happy."
Duvall plays the character Sonny, a foot-stomping "power of the Holy Ghost" minister who has preached since the age of 12 when he got religion in the black churches of rural Arkansas. As an adult, Sonny is a larger-than-life figure who wears sunglasses and drives too fast in a boxy, gas-guzzling car.
But he is also a sincere man of the Word who prays, it seems, nearly every moment of his waking life. In a powerful opening scene, Sonny pulls over at a traffic accident to put a Bible on the car and whisper prayers to its bleeding and barely conscious occupants.
Sonny's wife, played with artful weariness by Farrah Fawcett, schemes to take his church away and has an adulterous affair with the assistant pastor. Sonny kills the man with a baseball bat, then flees to Louisiana. After nights of self-confrontation in the bayou, he rechristens himself "Apostle E.F." and feels led to a retired black minister in Cajun country. Together, the two restore a battered church, which benefits from the spiritual growth of the Apostle as he faces up to his crimes. (The shots of worship in "The Apostle" use local Pentecostal worshippers, not actors.)
Duvall, whose father was a Methodist and whose mother was a Christian Scientist, is no stranger to alternative films. "Tomorrow," a haunting picture adapted from a William Faulkner story in which Duvall plays an illiterate Southern field hand, took 10 years to release. Other projects include "Farewell, My Love," a self-financed film about Gypsies inspired by the eloquence of a Gypsy boy Duvall heard on the street.
Yet the actor is best known for sharply defined characters who wrestle demons, or are demons. His portrayal in "Apocalypse Now" of a manic air cavalry leader in Vietnam, Lt. Col. ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning") Kilgore, has become an American classic. His depictment of a gung-ho fighter-pilot and disciplinarian dad in "The Great Santini" captured a certain kind of military type.
In 1983, Duvall won the Oscar for his rendering of a broken-down Texas country singer in "Tender Mercies." (That picture is also a film about redemption, though unlike "The Apostle," the audience realizes only at the end of the movie that it is about Christianity.)
Transcending race and class
One issue running through "The Apostle" like the Mississippi River is that of race. Sonny's sensibility is shaped by black Pentecostals, and the film presents the Christian message as universal, extending to all races and classes.
As a Harvard Divinity School professor notes: "It was moving to see a realistic presentation of church as a gathering together of people who haven't lost faith, and how that grows in them when the real thing is present. It's something that transcends race and class and is passed on to children."