The South: Heat, sweat, rust, bugs, mud and sin

Most movies about the South look like they were filmed in Southern California.

What's missing is heat, sweat, rust, bugs, mud and another messy reality called "sin." These movies contain sinful behavior, but nobody calls it "sin" or says folks should do anything about it. This is strange, since the real South contains zones in which people still wear Sunday clothes, carry ragged Bibles and say prayers before meals in restaurants.

"Most folks in New York and out here in California just don't know what to do with life below the New Jersey shore," said Robert Duvall, who has several weeks doing waves of interviews trying to explain his film "The Apostle" to whole media world. "They just can't seem to get it right. ... Everything ends up looking and sounding all wrong."

Lots of people understand that sinners can do good and that saints don't win all their battles with their demons. It's the people who really believe in sin who understand that sin, repentance and redemption are often messy subjects, said Duvall, who recently received an Oscar nomination for this performance as the flawed, but faithful, preacher E. F. "Sonny" Dewey.

"There really are preachers in jail. I've met guys like that who have done all kinds of bad things, even murder and rape," said Duvall, who wrote "The Apostle" script in long hand and directed it himself. "These guys are real people and they struggle with the good and the bad that's in their own souls. They're human. I wanted to show the reality of that struggle. ... My guy makes mistakes. But he's more good than bad. He hangs on to his faith, because it's real."

Duvall's Pentecostal preacher sums it all up one night in a showdown with God, just after losing his wife and church to a younger preacher. "I love you Lord. I love you, but I am mad at you," he shouts. "I know I'm a sinner, every once and a while, and a womanizer. But I'm your servant. I have been ever since I was a little boy and you brought me back from the dead."

A few scenes later, he bashes his rival with a baseball bat in a fatal flash of rage and flees. He's the kind of man who shouts "Glory! Glory!" as he sinks his getaway car into muddy waters and then re-baptizes himself as a reborn apostle. He defends his new interracial church with his fists, while the people sing "There's wonder-working power in the blood." As he gives a final altar call, with police-car lights flashing in the church parking lot, he tells a convert: "I'm going to jail and you're going to heaven. ... Glory be to God on high."

This character's roots run back 25 years, to a time when Duvall began visiting a church in Arkansas while doing research. He wrote the script in 1984 and spent 13 years wrestling with Hollywood's principalities and powers, trying to get it on film. Finally, he invested $5 million of his own money. Many of the people in the movie weren't acting, including a Pentecostal pastor who fasted for 24 hours before going on camera. Duvall is the star, but it's easy to spot the real preachers. Their voices soar, while the director often has the good sense to just stand and watch.

Meanwhile, Duvall is getting used to answering questions about his own faith. The son of a Methodist father and a Christian Scientist mother, he calls himself a believer, even if others on the gospel road might consider parts of his life unconventional. The key, said Duvall, is that he respects the role faith plays in the lives of millions of Pentecostal and fundamentalist believers, even if these people scare the living daylights out of Hollywood.

"A lot of the people who are praising this movie would never set foot inside one of these churches," he said. "They tell me, 'These people frighten me.' And I say, 'Why? These are good, moral people. You'd be in a lot more danger walking around in parts of New York City than you would be hanging out in these kinds of churches.' "