"Jesus is here right now."
Nearly twenty years on, The Apostle is aging well. Recently viewing this film - not having seen it since 98 - I was impressed with not only how well it holds up, but how much better it was than the last viewing. The first time watching it, I knew that there was something very unique taking place; I was struck most of all by an unabashed, unaided truth coruscating through the frame. On my latest viewing there was deep impact. While the film's qualities were certainly recognized by critics upon its release, I think this film is still sort of one of those not yet sufficiently recognized classics. It has not yet taken that place among the quiet late bloomers, like Casablanca and It's a Wonderful Life (neither of which I'm a fan of), but I am pretty certain it will. Moreover, I'm convinced - and some may laugh - that the Holy Spirit breathes through this film in an effusive, unstoppable way.
Therein lies the great surprise of this film, not to mention its actual greatness. You may chuckle at the white suit preacher repeating "Holy Ghost power" or you may find Billy Bob Thornton's conversion quaint, and so on, but towards the end, something like a chill sweat threatens to break over you, and the recognition that this film is, as a narrow sluice channel, delivering. Holy Ghost power. Very much in the same way this flawed preacher man - do you trust him? Is he just nuts? - is an instrument of "an acceptable time", a channel for Evangelium, so it goes with the film itself.
It is not a psychological portrait. It is not southern gothic. It is not genre. It is not ironical or cynical commentary. It is most certainly not sentimental. Only a conception, a script, gestating in the mind of Robert Duvall for thirteen years could have ended up becoming this film. I find comparisons that put the film in the company of the stories of Flannery O'Connor and other authors to be superficial, brittle observations; putting the film on the safe shelf.
The late Roger Ebert wrote about the almost documentary-like way in which this film unfolds and flows. You never feel - not once - that this film is fulfilling the requirements of a story arch. Other critics have used the words "electrifying" and "unapologetic" to describe that very particular course this film takes. The general reception of this film was quite positive.
I think one of the most startling things is the revelation that Duvall's character, Sonny, is indeed doing the work of Jesus, of planting and spreading the Gospel. It's convincing because you see that even when he realizes that his big sin of wrath - of murder - is catching up to him and he knows he must pay for it - that the mettle of his gospel convictions are tested: you see that while he knew his crime and indeed, fled from turning himself in, knew he was sooner or later going to be arrested and taken to jail, he still moves forward to spread the gospel in the ways he can. And more, that the Holy Spirit is working through this man. We see this emphasized also at the very end while the credits roll: Sonny is part of a chain gang at the side of a road and he's the leader in their song. He poses the questions, while the other convicts answer "Jesus". He's clearly continuing to do the work of the Lord while in jail.
I liked the very last words we hear before the final fade out:
"Who is Mary's little darling?"
"Smugness is the Great Catholic Sin." --Flannery O'Connor