Film: The Big Picture: Preaching with naked abandon

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The Independent Culture
RELIGIOUS MANIACS can squeeze all the joy out of spirituality when they start plugging away at a conversion - it becomes a calculated tally, like a gigolo carving notches into his bedpost. In his unsettling new film The Apostle, the actor Robert Duvall, who also wrote, directed and executive-produced the picture, has found a way of revealing the compassion that thrives in such a character without actually dispelling the notion that most fanatics are no different in their hungry hunt for subscribers than charity-nuts on a fun-run. You can watch Duvall as Sonny, accumulating a sizable congregation or marshalling a troop of children to refurbish a church while chanting the books of the Bible, and you can see both sides of him at once - Lord's servant and travelling salesman.

As an actor, Duvall is usually cast to signify comfort and reassurance, as in Falling Down or Colors or the first two Godfather films. Sure, he was chilling as a volatile cop in Coppola's The Rain People, but that was back in 1969, before people had begun thinking of him as a favourite uncle. By playing Sonny in The Apostle, he is subjecting the empathy of his audience to its most rigorous challenge.

When you looked into the eyes of Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry or Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, you may not have known what you were going to get, but you knew it wouldn't be nice. With Sonny, however, you can see purity and ugliness all muddled up together; his kindness is tart with hostility. Attempting a reconciliation with his wife (Farrah Fawcett), Sonny drops to his knees and begs her to pray with him, but not before exploiting her fear of his temper with teasing lunges which threaten to turn into violence. Even after he has fled his troubles and found a potential new flame, he undercuts a sweet goodnight kiss with some insidious bullying over which he appears to have no control - he opens his heart and with the love comes the bile.

It's a very musical performance, both vocally and physically. Sonny is a practised showman, but he's no fake. He's a passionate orator whose mastery of repetition and alliteration suggest that his natural environment might be the White House, a location in which, as in the church, his immoral lapses could be accommodated. Sonny's delivery is part rap singer, part racing commentator, and sprinkled with colourful, archaic expressions - after thumping his wife's new partner with a baseball bat, he boasts: "I beat him like a one-legged stepchild". When he moves, he has a Swaggart swagger; he claps to himself as he walks, his enormous arms curving before him like crab claws.

Sometimes his dogged buoyancy can be sinister, like when he bounds up the garden path, his jauntiness jarring with the object of his mission: to confront his wife about her infidelity. At other points, Duvall identifies a certain absurdity in Sonny without mocking him - he's the most restless figure in the string of preachers lined up at the microphone like a wrestling tag-team, and the Vegas grandeur of his white suit is diminished when he's forced to huddle beneath a garish, 10-cent umbrella.

But at full pelt on a church stage, he's a force of nature. This is imaginatively conveyed early on in the movie, when Sonny delivers a sermon to a Mexican congregation. The tiny, middle-aged woman who acts as translator not only interprets his words but also his movements. Assuming his purposeful stride and imitating the ripple of his trembling limbs, she suddenly seems bigger, even brutish, distended by the passion for which she is a channel.

Duvall's complete immersion in the role can make your head spin, and it's a clever reflection of the way Sonny surrenders himself to God. Sonny's impulses are very primal - they don't pass through any kind of social filter, which is why his enthusiasm can be as shocking and unpalatable as his anger.

The picture doesn't judge his devotion, and there's only one moment which feels even mildly editorialised, as Sonny stands at his bedroom window raging at God, and the film cuts to a shot of him from across the street, his writhing body imprisoned behind the crucifix of the window frame.

The qualities which make Duvall's performance so riveting are diametrically opposed to those which make him an appropriate director for the picture. While he acts with the naked abandon of a condemned man getting a last shot at freedom, he adopts a more detached approach behind the camera. I think it's a decision on which the success of the entire movie pivots. In Privilege or Tommy, two films which imagine the pop star as modern day messiah, it's not only the characters who are hoisted into the pulpit - you're seeing the director as preacher man too. And in Birdy, Alan Parker entirely bought into his hero's belief in himself as a feathered deity, foregoing all intellectual distance in the process. Duvall doesn't make the mistake of blurring Sonny's spirit with that of the film. He won't work the audience; he pulls you back.

Sometimes he even pulls you away. There's a rather laboured conflict introduced between Sonny, who has reinvented himself as "the Apostle EF", and a local bigot (Billy Bob Thornton) who questions his authenticity. Sonny chooses to follow Old rather than New Testament teachings in reply, and invites the thug outside.

Despite the lure of violence, and the congregation shuttling along the pews for a ringside seat on the altercation, Duvall has the camera cautiously approach a woman at the back of the church - Toosie (Miranda Richardson), whom Sonny has been wooing, and whose expression of admiration curdling into unease mirrors and deepens our own.

Using the camera as a tool of surveillance rather than hyperbolic manipulation is something characteristic of Robert Altman, with whom Duvall worked on M*A*S*H, and there are traces of Altman too in the way the film weaves a musical tapestry out of its actors' overlapping voices, both in speech and song.

What Duvall does use of David Mansfield's score is employed sparingly, and is never utilised to force an emotional reaction - the most ornate that the music gets is when Sonny is strolling around his parish and we hear an excitable flurry of banjos, mandolins and slide guitars which could feasibly be the instruments playing in his head as he gleefully searches for a new flock.

The people that Sonny collects around him are jolly types with a collective identity rather than individual ones, although as a writer Duvall still manages to refrain from romanticising them into a mass of big hearts and twinkly eyes. A benign fisherman who allows Sonny to pitch a tent on his lawn lays awake in bed, twitching the curtain nervously and clutching a rifle to his chest just to be on the safe side. These days even Good Samaritans carry guns.