Hollywood does not focus on clergy as often as it does criminals, but when the lens is trained on the pulpit, the plot usually goes one of two ways. There is the Elmer Gantry approach, featuring evangelists as hypocritical flimflam artists; or there is the Nothing Sacred approach, featuring three-dimensional but theologically clueless clergy such as ABC's controversial Father Ray (CT, Sept. 1, 1997, p. 95).

Now comes The Apostle, a groundbreaking film that treats both Pentecostal evangelist Euliss "Sonny" Dewey and his biblical message with deep respect. Robert Duvall is the director, writer, executive producer, and title character.

The movie, out January 30, is drawing acclaim from both secular and religious film critics. "A rare display of spiritual light on screen," writes the New York Times. MovieGuide writes, "There is much to be said in favor of this movie, but most significant is its positive affirmation of God, church, and evangelism."

Evangelist Dewey is no saint. He is a frail, flawed figure who battles pride, lust, and a violent temper that leads to murder and a dramatic fall from grace. Just as dramatic is Dewey's slow, painful redemption.

Duvall has been down this aisle before. He won an Oscar for his touching portrayal of born-again country singer Mac Sledge in the 1983 version of Tender Mercies, by Horton Foote.

"We make great gangster movies, so why not make this kind of movie right, too?" says Duvall, who wrote the screenplay for The Apostle in 1984 after visiting a Pentecostal church in Arkansas. After studios continually turned him down, he invested $5 million of his own savings to make the movie.

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