It’s always interesting to me to see Christianity portrayed in film by non-Christian filmmakers. “Chariots of Fire”, “Tender Mercies,” and so many other films deal with faith so explicitly (and, in my opinion, more realistically and artistically), but it’s coming from non-believers. That’s fascinating to me. And one of those examples is Robert Duvall’s personal film “The Apostle”, where actor/writer/director Duvall, a Christian Scientist who claims to not attend church, explores a more charismatic church environment and pastor.
Duvall himself plays this character, Sonny, a Pentecostal preacher raised in a similar environment as a child. He has a wife named Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) and a few children, but his family isn’t doing too well. Sonny has apparently been lustful toward other women (or something, we don’t really see this part of him on-screen that well), and Jessie has decided to leave him and marry a youth minister named Horace (Todd Allen). Sonny, of course, isn’t too happy about this, and his mother who lives with him (June Carter Cash) listens to Sonny yell to God, pacing back and forth in his bedroom:
SONNY: I’m gonna yell at you ‘cause I’m mad at you. I can’t take it. Give me a sign or something. Blow this pain out of me. Give it to me tonight, Lord God Jehovah. If you won’t give me back my wife, give me peace! …I love you, Lord, I love you, but I’m mad at you. I am mad at you!
The interesting thing about “The Apostle” is that it’s shot very objectively: the camera simply takes in the scene as if neutral, almost like a documentary kind of feel. Moreover, the acting throughout the film is very natural, as if even though there was a written script, the actors were improvising the actual dialogue. This means that when Sonny yells as he does, it doesn’t sound the least bit manipulated. It feels real, and he appears more vulnerable to us. To be honest, the whole movie just feels vulnerable, and that’s why I love it.
Anyway, Sonny gets himself in a predicament when one day, out of rage, he hits Horace with a baseball bat and kills him, and Sonny has to flee town and basically start a new life. So that’s just what he does: ditching his car into a river and baptizing himself anew, he becomes The Apostle E.F., and he ends up in Louisiana where he starts his new ministry. He begins building a church, and he is able to spread the word about it through a local radio station. Things start looking up as Sonny’s congregation slowly grows, and Sonny even starts a relationship with a woman working at the radio station named Toosie (Miranda Richardson).
But things don’t stay all well and good for Sonny. At one point, a suspicious man (Billy Bob Thornton) comes into the church asking about who “The Apostle E.F.” really is, and Sonny’s rage at first gets the best of him. Soon after, the man returns with a bulldozer threatening to cave the church in, but Sonny goes to him and comforts him, and the man is prompted to change his ways and convert (which I think is a pretty cool scene). But Sonny’s journey culminates after Jessie hears his voice on the radio talking about the church, and that night, police show up at the church service. Sonny carries on until the end, and then he turns himself in. He drives off with the police, and during the end credits, he is shown preaching to his fellow prisoners.
Sonny may or may not be based on a person (or persons) in real life, but honestly, he could be any of us Christians. Even though we preach the name of Jesus, we all stumble and sin, and if you think about it, you’ll probably agree with me that it’s a pretty inconsistent way to live. You can see that in Sonny, a preacher with a wandering eye and a short temper. But what’s amazing is that despite all our mistakes, God can still use us. We have to face consequences for our wrong actions, but God is always looking to forgive us. I’m reminded of Isaiah’s plea in Isaiah 6, where the prophet sees the glory of God and cries out:
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (6:5-8)
My prayer for you and I today is that despite our imperfections, we would confess our sins to He who is able and willing to forgive us, so that He may use us to complete His will.