A labor of love coming to fruition after 13 years, "The Apostle," Robert Duvall's third --- and best --- directorial effort, is a sharply observed exploration of a middle-aged preacher who embarks on a redemption odyssey after committing a crime.

A labor of love coming to fruition after 13 years, “The Apostle,” Robert Duvall’s third — and best — directorial effort, is a sharply observed exploration of a middle-aged preacher who embarks on a redemption odyssey after committing a crime. Financed, exec produced, written and acted by Duvall, in what is surely one of his most riveting performances, pic is a triumph on every level but one: its excessive running time. With the right handling and savvy marketing, this October pickup can reach the kinds of discriminating viewers who supported such Southern gothic tales as “Sling Blade,” even if its serious treatment of religious issues makes it even more demanding than Billy Bob Thornton’s movie.

A devout Pentecostal preacher from New Boston, Texas, Eulis “Sonny” Dewey (Duvall) lives a seemingly happy and fulfilling life with his beautiful wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett), and two children. In an early sequence, driving around with his mother, he stops his car at a road accident and manages to convert a badly wounded driver with his intense preaching just minutes before the latter expires.

However, forced to face a series of unanticipated adversities, Sonny’s stable world crumbles. Jessie is cheating on him with a younger minister, Horace (Todd Allen), and by manipulating the by-laws, she succeeds in wresting control of the church from him. Losing his beloved family and congregation, Sonny descends into an uncontrollable rage and strikes Horace with a bat at a softball game, where his children are playing. When Horace falls into a coma, he flees town; in a wonderful image that conveys deep confusion, he circles his car at a crossroad, until deciding to get on a bus for Louisiana. Shedding all traces of his past, Sonny chooses a new name, E.F., and baptizes himself as “The Apostle” to God, his new identity.

Inevitable comparisons will be made between “The Apostle’s” central premise and that of “Witness,” in which a city cop begins a new life in a rural Amish community. But the similarities lie only on the surface, for, ultimately, the psychological-moral journey taken by Duvall’s character is deeper, more disturbing and less romantic than the one in the earlier film.

Landing in the predominantly black town of Bayou Boutte, La., E.F. befriends the Rev. Blackwell (John Beasley), a former preacher who retired because of a bad heart. With zealous passion that often borders self-righteousness and obsession, he persuades Blackwell to help him start up a new church. He agrees to work as a garage mechanic for the local radio station owner, Elmo (Rick Dial), in exchange for free air time to preach. Soon the Apostle marshals the community to help him renovate a run-down pastoral church.

Burying the frustration of not being around when his mom dies and aggravated by the sorrow of learning that Horace had also died, E.F. commits himself wholeheartedly to his calling: He preaches on the radio, takes to the streets, gathers supporters on a revamped school bus. Seeking his own salvation, the Apostle conquers his inner demons by fervently organizing a grass-roots church, until his estranged wife discovers his whereabouts and informs the police.

Beautifully detailed and deftly structured, every scene in “The Apostle” logically leads to the next one, each elaborating on the central theme of religious redemption. As a writer, Duvall never allows viewers to think that they know everything there is to know about E.F. Perhaps even more remarkably, he doesn’t violate the character by summing him up: Almost every scene discloses another dimension of the preacher’s complex personality.

Duvall also reveals a masterly touch as director, achieving the kind of fluid storytelling that even more experienced filmmakers often lack. The movie contains many poignant scenes, but at least two stand out. There is electric tension and the imminent threat of violence when Sonny confronts his wife and begs her not to leave him, but contrary to expectations, he walks out quietly. In a later scene, when a racist troublemaker (Billy Bob Thornton) arrives on a bulldozer to destroy the church, the Apostle places his Bible on the ground and embraces the hoodlum with his sermon, eventually dissuading him from his spiteful intent.

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Duvall in the title role, which bears slight resemblance to his Oscar-winning turn in “Tender Mercies,” a film that dealt with a country singer’s redemption. But here, Duvall renders an even more superlative and modulated performance, one that allows the audience to feel an immediate, emphatic connection with his character, even when his motives or conduct are dubious.

While the central role dominates the proceedings, the other thesps do well in the same emotionally truthful vein, including Farrah Fawcett as the wife who deserts him, Miranda Richardson as a gentle neighbor who’s attracted to E.F., Thornton as the bigot, Billy Joe Shaver as old friend Joe, and June Carter Cash as his mom.

While tech credits are good across the board, running time presents a problem; a streamlining of perhaps 20 minutes seems possible without causing any damage to the film’s integrity.

The Apostle

Production

An October Films release of Butchers Run Films production. Produced by Rob Carliner. Executive producer, Robert Duvall. Co-producer, Steven Brown. Directed, written by Robert Duvall.

Crew

Camera (CFI color), Barry Markowitz; editor, Steve Mack; music, David Mansfield; production design, Linda Burton; art direction, Irfan Akdag; set decoration, Lori Johnson, Dea Jensen; costume design, Douglas Hall; sound (Dolby), Steve C. Aaron; associate producer, Ed Johnston; assistant director, Louis Shaw Milito; casting, Renee Rousselot, Ed Johnston. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 8, 1997. Running time: 148 min.

With

The Apostle E.F. - Robert Duvall Jessie Dewey - Farrah Fawcett Toosie - Miranda Richardson Horace - Todd Allen Brother Blackwell - John Beasley Mrs. Dewey Sr. - June Carter Cash Sam - Walton Goggins Joe - Billy Joe Shaver Troublemaker - Billy Bob Thornton Elmo - Rick Dial

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