The Apostle (1997)

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There aren’t a lot of balanced portrayals of Christianity in popular culture. A few really hit you in the head with how wretched and faithless you are. Mostly, though, modern media concerning Christians are vicious and mean-spirited. The storylines in “Saved!” and “True Blood” come to mind. Mostly people try to make you feel bad for being Christian or bad for being an atheist, with very little middle ground. Here’s where “The Apostle” comes in to blow you away. “The Apostle,” Robert Duvall’s pet project about a Pentecostal preacher fleeing the law, played by Duvall himself, is nothing if not balanced.

Sonny (Duvall) is a man with a fire in his soul and a burning desire to spread the word of God. He truly wants to make the world a better place with his faith. He’s also a liar, a adulterer, and finally, maybe even a killer as he beats his wife’s lover into a coma and hits the road. He’s pushy, dominating, and hypocritical, but the thing is the film never stoops to demeaning or ridiculing this man or his passion for the gospel. He is who he is, and this movie is okay with that, without becoming jokey or judgmental.

“The Apostle” is, above all, a character study, as Sonny flees to a small Southern town and starts his own congregation. This is neither the story of how Sonny redeems himself and inspires many or the sad tale of how a backwards preacher-man hoodwinks the townspeople. It’s complicated and tricky, just like life. All the actors do a wonderful job here, and Duvall picks ordinary-looking people to play many of the roles. This is the South as it should be portrayed more often- not ass-backwards and evil, but not glossy and idyllic either. There is racism, there is poverty, but there is also a unity between the people.

Sonny starts romancing a lady named Toosie (Miranda RIchardson,) who doesn’t know quite what to make of the preacher. Although he never physically hurts to or forces her to do anything she doesn’t want to do, there’s a demanding vibe to the relationship, and we can’t help thinking she could do better. Sonny misses what he’s left behind (his kids, his mother,) but is excited for a brand-new future. Will Sonny find the solace he’s been looking for?

This is quite an extraordinary movie. It’s very thought provoking and is appropriate for teens to watch and discuss with their parents, although adolescents might have a short attention span for this kind of film. The scene at the beginning of the movie with the car crash is amazing and, in my opinion, the most powerful scene in the movie. The climax goes on a bit too long, but that is a minor quibble among the many positive attributes the film has. I consider this a Christian-friendly movie that primarily appeals to skeptics, but above all, it is fair-minded and intelligent. An overlooked gem!

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