It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Hollywood to enter the kingdom of heaven by making a non-condescending movie about realistically flawed human beings who are, concurrently, devout Christians. That said, Robert Duvall may be in line for eternal reward, and possibly an earthly citation or two. Duvall produced, financed, wrote, directed, and stars in The Apostle (October), the story of Sonny Dewey, a Pentecostal preacher and miserable sinner from Texas. And in this unusual, unhurried tour de force—a seamless match of strong artistic vision and physical performance (the likelihood of which is never guaranteed, not even when one guy is running the whole show)—the Oscar-winning star of Tender Mercies draws on more than three decades of experience personifying the hard contours and bruised souls of American men to create a fearless and fascinating piece of work.

Sonny is a great evangelist, pumped by his work for the Lord: When moved by the Holy Ghost, his feet get happy and his hands, waving in ecstasy, reach out reflexively, literally to touch his flock. But Sonny also preens with pride, he philanders, and, worst of all, he grabs a baseball bat one day and conks the younger minister, who has been romancing his wife (Farrah Fawcett, admirably understated), knocking the fellow into a coma. Frightened, Sonny then beats it out of town, leaving behind his aged mother (country singer June Carter Cash) and his two beloved young children.

But somewhere on the road, something marvelous happens: The sinner undergoes a spiritual rebirth, whereupon he cryptically rebaptizes himself ”E.F.” and calls himself ”the Apostle.” From then on, there’s nothing for the Apostle to do but follow divine direction, which leads to a predominantly black bayou town in Louisiana, where, with the help of a retired local pastor (Chicago stage actor John Beasley), the mysterious stranger founds a grassroots church, does abundant good works, and uplifts a grateful congregation before the law moves in.

The ways of faith always require a leap from believers, but Duvall doesn’t care whether you’re at ease in his tent. From the brief, eloquent flashback prologue showing little Sonny being taken to her own people’s church by his wide black nanny to the Apostle’s long farewell sermon, Duvall charges ahead; energized, he all but tosses his wristwatch to the wind. (The Apostle runs mighty long and lingers jubilantly, almost defiantly, on the star’s filibuster performance pieces and flights of oratory.) Accepting Sonny’s contradictions— the bedrock existence of his faith and the goodness it loosens, the thrum of his libido (in Louisiana, he’s attracted to the shy secretary at a local radio station, played by Miranda Richardson), even his inability to repent in a way more skeptical moviegoers might prefer—the filmmaker feels no need to modulate for caution’s sake.

While keeping the camera trained on Sonny’s movements (the actor has given his character the thrusting strut of a man always ready to dance), Duvall the director gets unfussy, honest performances out of his supporting players, some of whom are churchgoers from Lafayette, La., where the film was shot. And he stages an extraordinary scene with Billy Bob Thornton. The director and star of the much mushier Sling Blade (in which Duvall had a small part) plays a racist who barges into E.F.’s church spoiling for a fight. Yet with only a Bible in his hand, sinner disarms sinner. It’s a moment of extraordinary cheek—just who does this Duvall fellow think he is, converting a showboater like Billy Bob? But the very cheek of it is The Apostle‘s salvation. When E.F. talks, people listen. A-

The Apostle
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