Our first glimpse of Sonny Dewey is strange enough – a small, conspicuously white child, being dragged by his mother to hear a roaring, Pentecostal preacher in an all-black church. But the next vignette – jumping to the present, when Sonny (Robert Duvall) and his mother (June Carter Cash) stumble upon a road accident – is unquestionably the most unusual and compelling encapsulation of a character I have seen in recent cinema.
Sonny is now a preacher himself. He races to the wreckage where a young man hovers on the brink of life, his companion probably already dead. Sonny – much to the chagrin of hovering cops – begins pouring out a torrent of holy words: exhortations, promises, interrogations. We cannot be sure whether he is haranguing this poor, dying man in his last moments, offering him false hope or, on the contrary, granting him the gift of eternal salvation.
Sonny, for his part, suffers from no such equivocation. He virtually dances back to his mother, talking and singing to himself as he will incessantly do for the rest of this remarkable movie. "Today," he boasts, "I have made news in heaven!"
The Apostle is a unique, riveting and profound film. Like other films of its year, Kundun (1997) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), it is a masterful exploration of ambiguity and ambivalence. All these films take us deeply into some manner of foreign territory – ways of behaving and believing that challenge certain everyday norms.
The crux of The Apostle is its presentation of Sonny's personal life and the error or sin to which this leads him. Sonny is far from being a saintly, pacific figure: he is a womaniser, insensitive to his family's needs, wrapped up narcissistically in the sense of his own mission. When his wife Jessie (Farah Fawcett) decides to leave him, Sonny picks up a baseball bat with the intention of doing damage to her young minister lover, Horace (Todd Allen).
Sonny then flees, and the rest of the film is devoted to his revival of an old, abandoned church, and his galvanising of a small, mostly black congregation. This section of the drama confirms what we have already come to suspect: that Sonny is not really a bad or evil man. Certainly, his faith and preaching carry no sinister hidden agenda – which distinguishes him from the charismatic figureheads in virtually every other movie on this topic.
The Apostle – written, executive produced and directed by Duvall, as well as showcasing him in the role of a lifetime – is a sublime exploration of what it is to be a human being, struggling somewhere between good and evil, sin and redemption. Duvall takes no moralistic stance whatsoever towards his material. His approach seems almost casual, observational – yet what depth of artistry and insight is concealed by this off-hand, naturalistic surface.
If there is any contemporary director with whom Duvall deserves to be compared, it is the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami (And Life Goes On ). Like Duvall's first fiction feature, the marvellous Angelo, My Love (1983), The Apostle has a deliberately meandering, wayward structure that consistently defuses ongoing narrative intrigues – even at the risk of alienating some viewers. This 'open form' is in perfect harmony with the film's wisdom.
Those blind and deaf critics currently wailing in public that Kundun resembles a telemovie may have problems detecting the subtle, cinematic virtues of The Apostle. But make no mistake – at every level, from scripting through to editing, it is a great work. The acting, from all the players, is of an exceptionally high standard. And few films take an audience on such an unforgettable journey into compassionate understanding.
© Adrian Martin July 1998