Rated PG-13 - Running time: 2:13 - Released 1/30/98 (U.S.)

Once in a while, you run across an experience like no other in cinema. When an actor gets his teeth into a role, so you can feel him being the character — you can feel the blood flowing through the character's veins and see the deep recesses of the character's soul, then you cannot help being awestruck by the performance. This happened to me when I saw Mrs. Brown, and that's why I know Judi Dench should have won the Oscar for Best Actress. And now I know who should have won for Best Actor. Robert Duvall, writer, director, producer, and star of The Apostle, absolutely seethes with the character of Sonny Dewey (alias Apostle E.F.) in this, perhaps the best performance of his career.

In his spiritual, emotionally charged screenplay, Duvall creates every sense of the old-time religion of the deep South. He is Sonny, the shouting, sweating, jumping, fire-and-brimstone preacher in a large Pentecostal church in Texas. In Leap of Faith (1992), Steve Martin was faking this kind of behavior. But here, Duvall feels it in every fiber of his being, and so do we.

Like all of Jesus' children, Sonny is not without sin. He and his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) have had their troubles, and she decides she wants a divorce. After he strikes her lover with a baseball bat, putting him in a coma, Sonny must leave town — leave his church, his children, his congregation — and hit the road. As he destroys all his identification, he adopts a new persona: "Apostle E.F."

He drifts into a small town in Louisiana and gets a job as an auto mechanic. His boss also owns a radio station, and E.F. establishes a radio ministry whose quickly growing popularity leads to a small church on a forgotten highway. And there he is, back in his element, with another devoted congregation. But despite all his successes, he knows that the Lord is going to come looking for him.

What an experience. Duvall is talking with the Lord in every moment, whether verbally or not. He is steeped in it; he walks, talks, and breathes sprituality. With excellent supporting performances by John Beasley as a retired black preacher who helps E.F. establish his church, Walt Goggins as his friend and fellow mechanic, and Miranda Richardson as the girl who works at the radio station, Duvall was able to craft his deeply textured character, an intense individual surrounded by people eager to bask in his reflected light. The powerful conversion scenes of Goggins and Billy Bob Thornton, whose character starts out as a belligerent racist, put this film over the top. What an astonishingly moving performance by all.

However you feel about the fundamentalist brand of spirituality, or about religion in general, take it from me, this film will make you feel the Power of the Lord. Or perhaps more accurately, the power of the Lord over Man. *****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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