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'The Apostle' Rewrites How Religion Is Depicted on Big Screen

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 1998


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.

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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.

Kudos abound

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.