The Apostle was a writing/directing/acting labor of love for Robert Duvall over 13 years.
I first saw the film when I was starting to realize I could not longer believe Christianity was true, and I thought it was the most genuine and affecting atheist film I’d ever seen.
This gives you some idea of how Duvall made the film. It’s a straight-faced portrait of a Pentecostal preacher, and how you interpret the story depends on your worldview.
The Apostle is the story of Sonny, a Pentecostal preacher whose infidelity leads his wife to begin a relationship with a youth minister. In an emotional fit, Sonny attacks the youth minister with a bat, and then flees. Sonny hides his identity and starts a new church in another state. In the end, the law finds him, and he is taken away after giving one last impassioned sermon to his flock.
If you’re a Christian, you might read the film as an affirmation that religious faith can redeem even the wickedest sinners. Sonny is sexually unfaithful, violent, and deceiving, and yet he continues to do the Lord’s work, save souls, and even converts a racist bigot near the end.
If you’re an atheist, you might read the film (as I did) as a critical examination of how religious faith blinds its followers, encourages hypocrisy, corrupts behavior, eliminates moral responsibility, and wastes precious lives on superstitious nonsense.
After sharing the gospel with a paralyzed kid stuck in his car immediately after a road collision, Duvall mutters prayers to his invisible friend while his mother sings a gospel tune. Through flashbacks, we learn that young Sonny was so indoctrinated as to be a hootin’ and hollerin’ Pentacostal preacher at the tender age of 10.
The outrageous services Sonny leads resemble tribal fire dances where emotional excitation is thought to bring forth the spirits. When Sonny hits the youth minister with a bat, the people don’t give him medical attention but rather lay hands on him and pray.
When a racist bigot comes to the church inquiring about Sonny’s identity, Sonny beats him up, justifying his violence as protection of God’s ministry. Later, to make money, he promises on the radio to personally bless scarves he is selling so that people will can put them under their pillows and “sleep more peacefully at night.”
Well. As long as it’s all for Jesus.