| Robert Duvall | 1997
I first heard mention of this film when I was reading up on Flannery O'Connor after finishing her
Collected Stories. While the film is a far cry from the brutal (and decidedly Catholic) religious
ecstasies of O'Connor's fiction, it's easy to see why the writer compared the two: both strive to
reconcile religious attitudes with violent realities, and they are among the few works of American
fiction that handle the subject of religion without resorting to condescension or sentimentality.
The story starts in East Texas, where an Evangelical preacher (Duvall) commits a crime of passion
and flees to rural Louisiana to evade arrest. With incredible, riveting charm, he connects with the
local community and goes about starting a congregation. Based on the violent beginnings and the
standard Hollywood take on evangelicals, one expects him to callously manipulate his followers,
but this is the anti Elmer Gantry
: Duvall treats his protagonist with absolute earnestness, a
man who believes that he is called by God to call others to God. The result is not only an electrifying
character study (and arguably Duvall's greatest performance), but one of the only honest depictions
of evangelicals in cinema -- one that addresses human failure without condemning its ensemble.
The film is most remarkable for the way that it illustrates how religious life engenders a sense of
community and belonging, with Duvall rallying diverse people (across race lines, although almost
invariably poor) and creating a physical and emotional space that enriches their lives. This culminates
in a scene where a belligerent, racist outsider (Billy Bob Thornton) shows up with a bulldozer and
threatens to tear down their newly restored church, and the unexpected emotional force of this
scene rivals some of O'Connor's most vivid revelations. As for the setting, while it doesn't scream
Louisiana (West LA and East TX are very similar), it captures the vernacular of the area as few films
do -- the way people talk and preach and interact -- thanks in part to its location shooting in St.
Martinville and Des Allemands and its casting of several local actors and nonprofessionals.