There’s much to admire — much, indeed, to be awed by — in ”The Apostle,” a film in which a Pentecostal Holiness preacher in Texas swings a baseball bat into the cranium of the youth minister who has stolen his wife and church and then high-tails it to Louisiana. The movie, which was written and directed by Robert Duvall, has been widely acclaimed since it was shown at the New York Film Festival in the fall, largely because Mr. Duvall also turns in an extraordinary performance as that preacher, Sonny Dewey. But the film has its troubling aspects too, and they revolve largely around its depiction of Pentecostalism.
Founded in Topeka, Kan., in 1900 by the evangelist Charles Parham, Pentecostalism emphasizes emotion in worship and derives its theology from events that are said to have taken place on Pentecost, 50 days after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
At that time, according to the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages. Parham and his followers claimed that they had recovered this ancient gift of speaking in tongues (glossolalia). Worshiping at first within traditional Protestant denominations, many Pentecostals, who became known as Holy Rollers because their glossolalia was often accompanied by writhing on the floor, eventually formed their own sects. The 1960’s charismatic revival (from charismata, the Greek word for gifts) broadened Pentecostal influence among both Protestants and Roman Catholics.
In ”The Apostle,” Sonny takes a humorous swipe at the staidness of many mainline Protestant churches — ”We’re not the frozen chosen!” he exclaims — and the film vividly illustrates the appeal of emotionally expressive religion. But Pentecostalism, which claims more than 200 million adherents worldwide, has another side — one that lays it open to charges of self-righteousness, prejudice and clerical despotism. Mr. Duvall was apparently less interested in examining these problems, though he does provide glimpses of them.
An outgrowth of the 19th-century Holiness movement (itself an offshoot of Methodism), Pentecostalism combines freewheeling spiritual experience with a rigid theological perspective on that experience. Pentecostal Holiness theology, like that of most American fundamentalists today, unabashedly proclaims the inerrancy of the Bible, the absolute authority of husband over wife and the premillennialist doctrine that at the end of the world, Jesus will hurl the unsaved into a lake of fire to suffer endless torture. Most telling, the official faith statements of the Pentecostal Holiness Church cite Christ’s Great Commission — to evangelize the world — but omit his Great Commandment, to love God and one’s neighbor.
”The Apostle” largely deep-sixes these and other unpleasant aspects of Pentecostalism. The One Way Road to Heaven Holiness Temple, which Sonny founds after fleeing to Bayou Boutti, La., and changing his name cryptically to the Apostle E. F., comes off as a place so unconditionally loving that many observers of Pentecostalism may find it impossibly benign. Indeed, for all the authentic homeliness of the film’s sets and costumes, and the grim, complex brilliance of Mr. Duvall’s performance, some of the church-related scenes here could be Norman Rockwell illustrations come to life: Sonny sits at the wheel of his little red church bus, handing roses to his poor but neatly dressed new parishioners as they climb aboard for their first ride to church; at the first service, Sonny’s invitation to praise God in music is taken up by a shaky old black man who stands and blows a trumpet and by two tiny black children who step into the aisle and strum toy guitars.
Such cute and colorful Kodak moments abound here. A scene in which a bunch of children paint Sonny’s new church while naming the books of the Bible in cheerful unison (but whose kids are they?) might easily be mistaken for a clip from the Disney version of ”Tom Sawyer.” But the most outrageously sentimental moment in ”The Apostle” comes when a church celebration is interrupted by a bully (Billy Bob Thornton) who wants to knock the church down with a bulldozer, primarily because white people and black are worshiping together there. Sonny brings the troublemaker to his knees with love, and the man ends up weeping, having thrown off the demonic yoke and been filled with the Holy Spirit. Even Frank Capra might have paused before including so contrived an episode.
Heart-rending images of racial harmony fill this and other church scenes in ”The Apostle.” But, alas, though racial integration was a distinctive facet of early Pentecostalism, the coziness of blacks and whites throughout this film reflects Mr. Duvall’s wishful thinking more than it does the reality of contemporary Pentecostalism, in which few congregations exhibit racial harmony in so pronounced a way.
Nor does Sonny’s enlightened ecumenism accurately represent Pentecostalism’s real attitudes toward other faiths. Watching a Roman Catholic priest blessing boats on the bayou, Sonny comments genially, ”You do it your way, I do it mine, but we get it done, don’t we?” Among hard-core Pentecostals, such broadmindedness is unheard of: Pentecostal theology stipulates that to be a true child of God, one must undergo not just the usual Christian baptism but also the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, a ”born again” transformation that among other things, enables the believer to speak in tongues. Significantly, though this film is full of long worship sequences, no one is seen speaking in tongues. Doubtless Mr. Duvall has omitted this sensational — but crucial — aspect of Pentecostalism for fear of alienating moviegoers.
It is striking that a movie with such a dark, realistic texture as ”The Apostle” should candy-coat the religious subculture in which it is set. Yet the objective here is plain: to depict a man of profound moral ambiguities who, though a murderer, is also capable of establishing a loving, grace-filled church. Mr. Duvall’s portrayal of that man is nothing short of masterly; one can only wish that he had been equally concerned to capture something of the profound moral ambiguities of Pentecostalism itself.
THE NEW YORK TIMES, 8 February 1998