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Review: Praise the Lord and pass the editing console for 'The Apostle'

Scene from 'The Apostle' December 25, 1997
Web posted at: 11:00 p.m. EST (0400 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Hard-core Southern religious zeal is one of those things that's difficult to fathom if you aren't such a vocal believer yourself.

Personally, I wouldn't say I'm a golden-calf heathen, but I'm not exactly spending my evenings shouting "hallelujah" at regular intervals, either.

Be warned: Even though it has a great deal going for it, those of you who have a low "praise the Lord" threshold would be well-advised to steer clear of Robert Duvall's new film, "The Apostle." As powerful as a lot of it is, the movie takes longer and is more repetitive than a march to the promised land.

Duvall, who also wrote and directed the film, plays Euliss "Sonny" Dewey, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who likes to shout hosannas the way De Niro lays on the "F" word in "Raging Bull."

But that doesn't mean that he's not capable of cracking open the skull of his estranged wife's boyfriend with a 28-inch Louisville Slugger -- at a church softball game. This is a major clue that Sonny suffers from what Freudians would call "inner conflict."

The great thing about "The Apostle" is that Duvall doesn't shuffle his lost preacher to the fiery depths of hell, as you might expect. Instead, after the boyfriend dies, he has Sonny ditch his previous identity and flee to a small Louisiana town to start a new ministry.

He struggles for salvation, and (without it getting too romanticized) becomes a much better person in the process.

I guess it would depend on your movie-viewing preferences, but I found the story to be far more fascinating when Sonny was smacking people around and forcing his fervor down their throats. Duvall, though, seems riveted by the guy's every thought, word and gesture.

It's a meaty role, to be sure, and Duvall gives one of the best performances of his career. But after a while you have to withstand the urge to stand up and scream, "Enough already, Brother Robert!" Hallelujah.

In keeping with the grass-roots story, Duvall sees to it that his camera work remains simple and unobtrusive throughout. He starkly records the action, rather than manipulating it, and there's next to no incidental music. Aside from its inexcusable length, this is a solid piece of filmmaking, not just the work of an actor who's generated enough power to get a vanity project off the ground.

The first sequence in the movie is one of its best, and it sets the tone for the first half of the film. As Sonny and his mother (played by June Carter Cash) are driving down the highway, they happen upon a multi-car accident. Sonny sneaks past the gathering state troopers (who, in a nice touch, are sadly wondering which of the crash victims owns a small dog that's sniffing around the scene) and approaches one of the smashed autos. He leans in to find a bloodied, semi-conscious young man in the driver's seat with his apparently dead wife lying beside him.

Sonny whispers into the man's ear that if he'll accept Jesus right then and there, no matter what happens, he'll end up in the kingdom of heaven. Duvall is incredibly intense here; you're absolutely convinced that Sonny isn't pulling anybody's leg. When a state trooper steps over to drag him from the wreck, Sonny just keeps on preaching while literally kicking the trooper away from him.

It eventually becomes apparent, though, that Sonny is just as interested in rescuing his own soul from its very iffy standing with the Lord as he is in saving those less fortunate than himself. He's a womanizer, sports a hair-trigger temper in matters that even vaguely concern the church, and generally has quite a bit of trouble maintaining his focus on good works.

These establishing scenes (which, in an average movie, would last 30 minutes rather than the hour you get with "The Apostle") are caustic and sometimes downright provoking. Sonny just will not shut his mouth about his love for the teachings of the Bible, to the point that his beleaguered wife (Farrah Fawcett, doing a far better job than she did the last time she was on Letterman) won't even talk to him anymore.

His message is painfully obvious after a while, and this, when coupled with his insistence on preaching during his every waking minute, often makes Sonny one tiresome man of the cloth.

This feeling escalates beyond the realm of the character himself as the story progresses. Duvall's endless preaching while he scratches and claws to establish a following in a bayou town eventually rattled me.

The script also loses its way in the second half. First of all, Sonny is practically the only white person who has a thing to do with the church, but the racial side of the story gets a one-sentence nod rather than the subplot it more properly requires.

Then there's his awkward romance with a lonely woman (Miranda Richardson, very good as usual) who works at the radio station where he preaches on Sunday mornings. It's simply unbelievable. Richardson seems too focused to put up with Duvall for long, and their courtship never comes to a proper conclusion.

This is Duvall's show, though, and he makes the most of it. Sonny is a legitimately complex character. A lesser actor could have made a terribly contrived mess of him. A couple of times you even get to see him deliver entire sermons in the church while dancing around the pulpit like a deranged Donald O'Connor. Duvall gets the tent revival howl-and-growl right, and he can even make you periodically see the light, but his healing seems to work in reverse on the movie as a whole.

For a while it struts around like a proud, Bible-thumping rooster, but it finally ends up lame.

"The Apostle" is as long as a crawlin' king snake in the Garden of Eden. There's some violence, and Duvall is intense enough to scare the weak-hearted. Prepare yourself mentally for the embarrassment of a numb backside. PG-13. 160 minutes.

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