Apostle lacks character exploration and depth

Actor Robert Duvall (A Family Thing) long has wanted to make this intimate drama about a preacher forced to reappraise his life when he commits a crime and is compelled to leave his community. But The Apostle (October Films) lacks depth. As a study of spiritual crisis, it falls short of such modern classics as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Duvall, who also directs and scripts, stars as “Sonny” Dewey, a Texan preacher shocked to discover his beautiful wife (Farah Fawcett, “Charlie’s Angels”) has a lover. She demands a divorce, and he concedes. One day, in a jealous rage, he lashes out, puts his wife’s boyfriend in a coma by landing a bat to his head – and rushes out of Texas in a hurry.

He ends up in a black Louisiana town, where he takes on the charismatic role of “The Apostle,” and attempts to build a new church. Horton Foote could have written a compelling story on this theme, but Duvall doesn’t prove himself, either as actor or as filmmaker.

His portrayal of Sonny lacks introspection. Sonny seems more concerned about being apart from his wife and children than putting another man in mortal danger. Even his familial longings are shallow. He soon begins a relationship with another woman (Miranda Richardson, The Designated Mourner ).

Though tugging along for the most part, the film occasionally lets free. One can’t help but momentarily be swayed by the preacher’s rather galvanizing enthusiasm. Of God giving Moses the Ten Commandments, Sonny exhorts: “He didn’t give him 12 or 14. He gave him 10! And the 11th Commandment, thou shalt not shout – that does not exist.”

On a broader note, The Apostle is something unusual in cinematic terms. It’s a film that can create a full, fiery, warts-and-all portrait of Sonny without reducing him to any stereotype. Unlike those who appear in the tabloids, he actually believes in what he rants. This oddball, self-proclaimed servant of the Lord genuinely is seeking his own salvation, and the salvation of his flock.

Sonny is very much his own man and earnest about his mission. Even when fate deals him a career-ending crisis, Sonny rebounds by inventing new ways to do what he does best. One of its redemptive qualities, The Apostle foregoes caricature and aims for honesty.

But this isn’t enough. The Apostle is too long, lacks atmosphere and uplifting and moving dialogue, and doesn’t give the rest of the cast, including Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade), much opportunity to shine.

A movie that should have been edited down to an hour-and-a half, drags on an extra hour for no apparent reason other than to showcase Duvall.

The Apostle is now playing.

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