The Apostle

(1997) *** 1/2 Pg-13
134 min. October. Director: Robert Duvall. Cast: Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Todd Allen, John Beasley, June Carter Cash.

It is a rare film in today's climate which transcends mood and achieves spirit. Robert Duvall-- as writer, director and star-- has fashioned such a film, The Apostle, and he has been rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The Apostle is a flavorful story of the human hunger for transcendence, and the remarkable power of faith to "save" people from their own worst instincts.

Duvall plays a Texas Pentecostal preacher who faces a Job-like test of faith. He goes on the run from the law, leaving behind his ailing mother, his best friend and the ministry he built. He starts anew in a small Louisiana town, where he hides his past and doggedly builds a new ministry.

What makes The Apostle work, aside from Duvall's remarkable, fiery performance, are the surprisingly subtle choices of the screenplay and direction. Unlike The Rainmaker (1956), or any number of cornball, films about hucksters transformed into saints, Duvall's "Apostle" is never less than he seems. The man is a devout believer, and always as good as his word. He sins, and he repents, but he never sells snake oil. The inherent contradiction of a preacher prone to violent outbursts is not lost on anyone, including the Apostle; nevertheless, he believes he is led by God, and knows he is driven by himself.

Duvall takes the rare misstep. Two scenes late in the film involving Billy Bob Thornton, for instance, have a forced quality narrowly overridden by Thornton's deeply set performance. But where it counts-- in the pulpit, and more affectingly, in Duvall's moments alone with his God-the director (and actor) is pitch-perfect.

The Apostle is certainly a religious film, of sorts (though Duvall says he's "not really a churchgoer... [he has his] own beliefs"), but one does not have to be religious to appreciate it. Beyond the array of good performances, including Farrah Fawcett as Duvall's straying wife and Miranda Richardson as his new love interest, beyond the charms of the well-paced story and lively evocations of gospel worship, the film expresses a universal hope and faith-- not necessarily in God, but certainly in the human spirit to overcome hate and fear and perhaps worst of all, emptiness. Here is a message, it seems, anyone would want to hear.

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