Monday, January 3, 2011

The Apostle. (1997) Robert Duvall

I've said it a hundred times before and I'll likely say it again --

The A&F Top 100 is a great place to discover and rediscover forgotten or overlooked gems. The nominations are in for the 2011 list, and I've been trying to find nominations I haven't seen in order to be fair when I finally vote. I don't think anyone that votes sees every single film, but that's part of the fun -- when the community latches onto a favorite and it surprises you by ending up on the final list, you've got all the more reason to check out what you may have passed over in years past.

The Apostle sat at #19 on the 2010 list. After seeing it again recently, I hope it sits as high when we vote again today.

I remember being stirred by The Apostle when I found it on DVD in 1998, but I haven't seen it since. What I didn't remember was how solid the story really is, acted and edited together with brilliant precision. I also forgot that Robert Duvall wrote, directed and starred in the film as the flamboyant southern evangelist Sonny, later calling himself "Apostle E.F." when on the run from the law.

It's Sonny/E.F. that's on full display here. As a boy he grew up in tiny Pentecostal churches, where tongues are afire and dancing and shaking in the Spirit are the norm. Somewhere along the line as a boy he learned to regurgitate what was preached there. Early on, we see him as a teen, preaching like real-life evangelist/fake Marjoe Gortner to a crowd that wants to hear about the glories of heaven. Sometimes life on earth is so hard that we simply hope for a better place later on -- even if we need to die to get there.

Watching Sonny can be an excruciating experience for Pentecostal viewers. These kind hearted folks so believe in the healing of their salvation metamorphosis that they don't like to look at character flaws remaining unfixed. If you're not healed when you get up from the altar, there's obviously something wrong with you. There's certainly nothing wrong with God.

Sonny just doesn't fit well in this mode of thought. He's not an easy character to figure out. While he's no charlatan, like the previously mentioned Marjoe, he still has some sort of dark cloud that hangs over the joys of his walk with Jesus. He has a relationship with Jesus -- to the point of questioning Him when he doesn't understand, yelling at Him when he thinks He is wrong. Sonny's prayers sometimes come off like a boxing match with The Invisible.

His mom is amused when she hears him up all night in a heated, blistering fight with God. The neighbors call and ask her to shut him up. She smiles and hangs up. She has raised him to love, fear and boldly question this God. She's proud of the kid she has raised.

Even in the midst of these wrestling, tortured prayers, Sonny has a heart that wants to reach out to people. He believes that God can fix and heal the human heart. He loves building churches, he loves asking people to turn over their lives to Jesus. At times his love for the work is put in front of the love for his family, and perhaps this is why his wife gets caught up in an affair with their youth pastor -- or maybe Sonny has had similar adulterous problems, too, which pushed her into another lover's arms.

Whatever the reason, the affair pushes her out of Sonny's arms, maybe even out of his grip, and when she's absolutely done with the marriage, regardless of the kids, she watches in horror as Sonny puts the youth minister in the hospital. He may want to reach out and touch most people, but this guy, he wants to reach out and throttle. And in an early scene at a children's baseball game, he tears a hole into all of their lives.

Knowing he'll soon be arrested, Sonny goes on the run. He leaves his home state of Texas (perhaps one of the only places where it makes sense for a preacher to carry a gun), and ends up in a small swampish town in Louisiana. He finds a retired minister there and tells him he wants to build a new church. He jobs as a mechanic, then as a cook to make some quick cash and launch the new ministry on his heart. He changes his name to Apostle E.F., pastoring "The One Way Road To Heaven Holiness Temple." Local radio throws in tons of free air time -- he uses the airwaves for loud frenzied preaching, announcing the church's first Sunday.

At the first service, it seems lots of people have heard him on the radio. He's as entertaining as he is sincere. But no white people show up for their first service -- all the whites listening to him on the radio thought him certainly a black preacher launching a new black church.

E.F. meets a girl and practically begs to sleep with her after a date. He also pauses a church service to have a back yard brawl with a troubled local. He's not afraid of breaking certain small rules in order to accomplish a greater good. Morally, he's conflicted, but his obsession for The Lord and his persuasive confidence bring favor in the eyes of the congregation.

To say much more about Sonny or E.F. would be a great injustice to The Apostle. It's a film you need to see in order to believe and fall in love with. I wouldn't want to spoil anyone's viewing. But I will say this: It's rare to find a film in which redemption and justice walk away hand in hand as friends. That, is one of the greatest achievements in The Apostle. It's a feat in film that's hard to come by.

The use of non-actors (especially several real-life evangelists in full-motion Preach), the highly charged improvised scenes, the red-dirt deep southern fried chicken locations, and moments of quiet reflection or sizzling Pentecostal worship make The Apostle a richly rewarding film, one of great heights and downtrodden sorrow, where God is great but people aren't always, and joy is both celebrated and shredded in community.

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