by Matt J. Popham
[Originally published in conjunction with St. David’s Jubilee Center summer film series.]
You could be forgiven for approaching Robert Duvall’s The Apostle with some degree of skepticism. “An intense and intimate drama about a small town Pentecostal preacher, his sins, and his struggles for salvation,” isn’t the sort of summary that sends a film skyrocketing to the top of most people’s Saturday night Netflix queue. Fortunately, five minutes of the film ought to be enough to convert you.
Its opening scene finds Duvall’s energetic Southern evangelist, Sonny Dewey, pushing unsolicited salvation on two teenagers in the aftermath of an auto accident. It’s an expertly executed character introduction, simultaneously off-putting in its opportunism, yet seductive in its genuine zeal, that also plants us firmly in the film’s densely thicketed ethical landscape. Dewey is a damaged, deeply-flawed man – a sinner in his own parlance – and, after a particularly grave moral lapse, he is forced to flee from his family, his congregation, and his home. But he is also a sublimely gifted preacher, utterly sincere in his religious convictions and his commitment to his flock. It’s the sort of character dichotomy and moral complexity we’re not used to seeing in Hollywood films, but The Apostle’s dedication to fearlessly engaging with human contradictions and frailties is the source of its dramatic strength.
Seeking to redeem and reinvent himself, the fugitive Dewey expends his enormous energies on building a small church in the bayous of south Louisiana, where he quickly earns a diverse and devoted following.Eschewing easy stereotypes and formulas, Duvall populates his Southern wilds with recognizable, real-world characters, coaxing layered performances from his excellent cast, who capably imbue even the smallest roles with depth and dimension. But it’s his dynamic, devastating performance as Dewey that really drives the film, as we watch the character grow in his understanding of himself and his vocation.
Being only human, Dewey’s failings follow him, of course, in more ways than one, but for all his fiery sermonizing, The Apostle is less about the fear of divine judgement than the significance of humble, human endeavors. Dewey’s success in creating something immensely meaningful, however small it may appear, in the unlikeliest of circumstances (an accomplishment akin to the making of the film, itself) might just be redemption enough.