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Film: Wrong movie, Mr. Clinton

Robert Duvall's promising film on Pentecostalism, The Apostle, turns out neither tender nor merciful

The evening before giving the State of the Union address three weeks ago, Bill Clinton sat through a White House screening of The Apostle, a new movie directed, produced, written by, and starring Robert Duvall. For those who had followed the story of how Mr. Duvall spent years trying to break past some Hollywood clichés by making a film about a pastor who does not fleece his flock, the Clinton viewing was a hopeful sign. Maybe a powerful movie that depicted sin, repentance, and redemption would break through in a way that politicians, pundits, and carefully selected preachers have not.

Alas, The Apostle is not that film. It has received praise in New York and Hollywood reviews for its description of a religious subculture outside the reviewers' experience. But, sadly, while director Duvall has an ear for accent and an eye for mannerisms, he is theologically tone-deaf and weak in his character and plot development. The dramatic tension that coursed through a wonderful movie involving actor Duvall a decade ago, Tender Mercies, is absent here, because there is no sense of the true degradation of man and our desperate need for Christ.

There is degradation aplenty in the plot, of course. Some hackneyed elements are present at the start: Pentecostal preacher Sonny (Robert Duvall), an adulterer, is deposed from his church through the machinations of his wife (Farah Fawcett), who is sleeping with the youth pastor, whom Mr. Duvall then kills. Just a week in the life of a typical Southern church, according to Hollywood. But Sonny then flees, rebaptizes himself as "the Apostle E.F.," and heads off to rural Louisiana to start a new church. Why? There's no sense that Sonny himself is broken by his sins and crime; fiery preaching is his life, and he needs to get on with his work, regardless of the personal burdens he carries, much as President Clinton says he needs to get on with the work of the country.

Having separated the personal from the professional, Sonny is effective in his calling. He takes two jobs to gain funds for his ministry, preaches on the radio, drives a church bus to bring poor folks to his doors, and distributes food to some of them. His new congregation is racially integrated, much to the dismay of a clichéd redneck (Billy Bob Thornton), but Sonny gets him on his knees praying. Sonny is not out for money: Wherever he is, he preaches, and he moves people to a response-but Sonny himself never changes. He cares about his invalid mother (June Carter Cash) and his two children from whom he flees, but there's no indication that God is inclining his heart to follow the Bible instead of just thumping it. Adultery got Sonny into trouble, as it did Mr. Clinton in 1992, but later in the movie Sonny tries to bed the married receptionist at the radio station.

Mr. Duvall worked hard to depict the surface of The Apostle's rural pentecostal world. His screenplay sports some Christian lingo. The soundtrack includes a bunch of revival songs. We even see an altar call at the end of the movie. Everything from tent revivals to Sonny's banged-up leather Bible has an appearance of authenticity. But Pentecostal preachers, like other ministers of Christ, talk about real sin (as opposed to getting into trouble with the law) and real repentance (as opposed to just staying out of prison). Because there's no understanding of true change in the movie, the characters lack depth, and the film, sadly, ends up as a cartoon.