Falling to Peaces

The Apostle
Uptown Theatre

Oscar and Lucinda
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

IN AN EQUIVOCAL scene near the start of Martin Scorsese's generally reverent Kundun, the child thought to be the new Dalai Lama is asked to pick out "his" old belongings--the cane and glasses of the previous Dalai Lama, possibly reincarnated within this toddler body. As the boy fiddles with the objects, Scorsese focuses on the surrounding adults, whose eager faces speak so clearly they might as well be shouting "warm, warmer, HOT!" The moment conveys a playful skepticism. Through it, Kundun reveals a basic Western spiritual paradox: the desire for reassuring evidence of a greater plan, yet the need to believe in every person's unprecedented will.

If Scorsese knits a heroic tale of this contrary coupling (look what faith and will together can accomplish!), two eccentric little films about Christian preachers strike a more ambivalent tone. These movies share a suspicion that people invent the signs they wish to lead them. They also grant that miracles happen, and that mountains move. You can read actor-writer-director Robert Duvall's The Apostle and Gillian Armstrong's Oscar and Lucinda as tales of either redemption or broken faith. Better yet, read them as both at once--as raw tangles of ambition and grace.

Whether you appreciate Duvall's hat trick will depend on your tolerance for his protagonist, a bull of a man with the energy of a 2-year-old--and a 2-year-old's inability to understand the word "no." A charismatic minister, Sonny has a demanding relationship with God: Sonny demands, God provides. Then Sonny discovers that both his wife and his church are dumping him. He beseeches the Lord in his usual manner ("GIVE IT TO ME GIVE IT TO ME GIVE IT TO ME GIVE ME PEACE!"), but the Lord's phone is busy. So Sonny attacks his wife (a believably worn and determined Farrah Fawcett) and her lover; soon he's on the run from the law.

Repentant, he asks God for forgiveness and direction. As you'd expect, God doesn't tell him to go back and turn himself in. Instead, the "signs" lead him to reinvent himself as the Apostle E.F. and set about building a backwoods faith community. No one involved, most particularly Sonny, acts out of anything but self-interest--there's a wonderful scene in which multi-hued, angelic children, singing and renovating an old church, run outside to be showered with cash money. And yet, something rich does grow up around the reprehensible Sonny, something greater than the sum of all this selfishness.

The Apostle so cleverly mixes sentimentality and cynicism that I wasn't much bugged by big helpings of both. Hardly a stereotype goes unmocked here--gospel choirs, loud black women, weak white men, selfish Southern preachers. But the characters all exude a dignity that has as much to do with their individual ambition as with their place in this compassionate community. "Give it to me! Give it to me!" cry these hapless humans to each other. And in their union, their witnessing, they do receive.

Oscar and Lucinda also plays witty games with historical ideas about fate and will. A cheeky costume romance set in the mid-1800s, Armstrong's film is likewise concerned with the construction of a church; still more than in The Apostle, though, the results remain inconclusive. Based on the novel by Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda springs from the bizarre beginnings of a couple of, as one character puts it, "Odd Bods": the free-ranging offspring of an early Australian feminist and the well-repressed son of an English Calvinist.

Lucinda (Cate Blanchett) reaches adulthood with a confident stride and an unexpected fortune that threatens to tame her. Oscar (Ralph Fiennes) rebels enough to become an Anglican priest, but not enough to enjoy any sort of pure pleasure--Hell, of course, awaits. Each slides into a gambling addiction: Lucinda, seeking to lose her financial burden; Oscar, to experience an absolutely present-moment delight, which he rationalizes by ceding winnings to the poor. When they meet, they complement each other like a hinge and a pin. She models strength; he, vision.

Fiennes makes Oscar brilliant yet self-ravaging, with a passion so humble it's painful to watch. Blanchett's Lucinda is a lonely goddess, too powerful for her century. Embracing in faith, they might open a great door unto a braver (gender) future. But Oscar, unable to imagine himself free of his father's (or his Father's) stern Plan, distrusts their motion. What they create together stays a beautiful, doomed thing, a passing miracle.

Oscar is not the only recent movie male to go down with the ship. But Armstrong's added epilogue at least holds out the possibility of men choosing to learn to swim.

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