Stronger on regional ambience than narrative coherence, The Apostle, Robert Duvall's earnest and often moving account of one man's struggle for redemption, successfully eschews Elmer Gantry-style clichs while simultaneously avoiding saccharine religiosity. Duvall believes that Christian preachers have been unfairly maligned by Hollywood, and his dream project-with its focus on moral ambiguities and carefully drawn, complex characters-offers a relatively nuanced view of religious faith.

Duvall stars as Euliss 'Sonny' Dewey, a flamboyant Pentecostal minister who has a gift for spellbinding oratory and a weakness for young women. Dewey receives his comeuppance when his wife Jessie (played with admirable restraint by Farrah Fawcett) loses her patience with her husband, a man who seems to have more time for his adoring congregants than he does for his family. Jessie's affair with a young preacher named Horace enrages Sonny, and the fiery man of God impetuously attacks his wife's lover with a baseball bat during his son's Little League game.

Sonny's rash act ignites the film's narrative machinery: The pious man turned renegade flees his Texas home and sets out on a quest to reforge his spiritual identity. Yet the resilient Sonny soon settles in a small Louisiana town. His fortuitous alliance with an ailing former preacher, a dignified black man named Reverend Blackwell, soon catapults him into a career where his charismatic preaching wins him more followers than ever. The chastened murderer (who rechristens himself the 'Apostle E.F') first revs up the townspeople with radio sermons, and eventually rehabilitates an old church with the help of Reverend Blackwell. But, rather predictably, Sonny's idyllic ministry is short-lived. The Christ-like sinner's identity is eventually revealed to the police (it is never entirely clear whether he is betrayed by an eavesdropping churchgoer or his former wife) and the Apostle's brilliant second career comes to an abrupt end.

Duvall's artistry is not as evident in his workmanlike script as it is in his skillfully cinematic depiction of a religious subculture that remains inadequately understood by the secular world. Instead of dwelling on the chicanery and hypocrisy that obviously afflict some men of the cloth, Duvall meticulously recreates the highly charged, multi-racial fervor of a typical Southern Pentecostal congregation. In fact, many of the film's most effective moments are not bound up with its narrative at all, but occur during several bravura set-pieces in which Duvall's impassioned preaching merges with the ecstatic response-and boisterous singing-of a largely unprofessional supporting cast. Duvall's interest in religious communion is much more convincing than his indulgence in occasional melodramatic pyrotechnics. He also deserves credit for shattering the myth that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in the American calendar. Whatever the limitations of Pentecostalism's simplistic creed, Duvall's research led him to the conclusion that, at least in the South, integrated worship is not particularly unusual.

Unfortunately, The Apostle often strains credulity when this quasi-documentary preoccupation with backwoods piety gives way to Duvall's penchant for heavy-handed moralizing and inert subplots. The film ventures into the realm of muddled allegory with the introduction of a racist lout played with appropriate malevolence by Billy Bob Thornton. The Thornton character's unsuccessful attempt to raze the heroic Apostle's church is one of Duvall's major miscalculations-this climactic convergence of good and evil seems torn from the pages of a clumsy passion play. In addition, Miranda Richardson is wasted in the underwritten part of a radio-station secretary who is fond of Sonny but finds herself unable to love this tortured, contradictory man.

Ultimately, The Apostle's flaws are forgivable, since they are the product of ambition and undeniably good intentions. In a cynical era, Robert Duvall has made a film that is totally devoid of cynicism.

--Richard Porton