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ORDER, THE(director/writer/producer: Brian Helgeland; cinematographer: Nicola Pecorini; editor: Kevin Stitt; music: David Torn; cast: Heath Ledger (Alex Bernier), Shannyn Sossamon (Mara Sinclair), Benno Fürmann (William Eden), Mark Addy (Thomas Garrett), Peter Weller (Cardinal Driscoll), Francesco Carnelutti (Father Dominic); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Craig Baumgarten; 20th Century Fox; 2003)
“An ecclesiastical mess.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An ecclesiastical mess. Director-writer Brian Helgeland (he wrote the screenplay for LA Confidential and directed A Knight’s Tale) tries to create a scary film in the mode of The Exorcist, Stigmata, and The Name of the Rose, but this cultish flick fails to be their equal. Instead it becomes unintentionally funny in all the wrong places. Helgeland directs this religious-horror genre film with a heavy hand as he tosses in too many clichéd familiarities: a soundtrack filled with obligatory scary whispering sounds from the underworld, two orphan children who have sad expressions are spied upon throughout before turning into demons in a cemetery only to vanish when the priest waves a cross at them while mumbling some mumbo-jumbo, and the pretentious dialogue is reduced to spurious gloomy liturgical quotes. One such quote uttered by a dissipate bookseller of the occult goes like this “Knowledge is the enemy of faith.” If it weren’t so dull and full-of-itself, this had the makings of one of those old-fashioned Edward L. Cahn creepy B films. But, alas, there was no fun to be had amidst all the thunderclaps, arcane holy rituals, hokey special effects of sin eaten up as if it were calamari served on pasta, and unsmiling clerics. This supernatural thriller has been on the shelf for quite awhile, as some reports claimed test market audiences never knew quite what to make of it and greeted it with much reservation. Well, the repair job didn’t work. Nor did changing its original title The Sin Eater. This dark film leaves a stench in the theater, though it’s always good to have the Vatican demonized and called to task for the dirty way they play their secret political games. But this film lacked logic, the right script, and the will to enter the dank corridors of the Catholic Church and come out smelling like a rose.

Heath Ledger plays Alex Bernier, a young and solemn priest dwelling in NYC who belongs to a dying church order called the Carolingians. They are trained to exorcize ghosts and demons. When Alex’s mentor Dominic dies and the church authorities call it a suicide he calls Thomas, the only other member, in Paris and arranges to meet the burly priest in Rome. Dominic was an ex-communicated elderly Roman priest, who ran afoul of the authorities with his pursuit of occult knowledge. On the spur of the moment Alex takes pretty Mara Sinclair (Sossamon) along, as she just escaped from a mental hospital. Alex loves her but sticks to his vows after curing her blinding headaches with an exorcism. In Rome, they appear to be the Mod Squad’s “Catholic Pete, Linc, and Julie.” Oh, by the way, Mara was in the loony bin because she tried to kill Alex during his treatment of her. But things are cool now, obviously. They even hit the sack together, which indicates the disheveled Alex is now more into doing so-called manly than priestly things.

Investigating Dominic’s body, Alex finds strange markings indicating a ritual killing and not a suicide. Upon further investigation with Thomas, they come across a desultory character named William Eden (Fürmann)–he actually approaches Alex for his own reasons. Eden’s an almost immortal figure who is aged around 500, a boy during the Renaissance who has grown weary of life but still hasn’t aged much past looking like a young man. He is known as the Sin Eater. This misunderstood dude takes it upon himself to absolve those who’ve been shunned by the Church by literally swallowing their sins before they die. It seems he did the same for Dominic. The mystery is what was Dominic’s sin and how does it relate to Alex. Also involved in this murky story is a vile American Cardinal Driscoll (Weller), who oversees Alex’s order and is ambitious to be the next pope. Driscoll made a deal with the Sin Eater of retrieving from the Vatican vault a murderous silver dagger taken long ago and of Eden returning the favor by arranging with the other cardinals to rig the papal election. When pope, Driscoll aims to be a warrior to gain more wealth and power for the Church.

The film’s premise of paying your way to heaven through the church is an interesting one and not completely untrue, but this film couldn’t do anything with it but muck it all up. To make matters worse, the cinematography was dreary and the uninteresting forced moody atmosphere made watching it quite the chore. This film could use the Sin Eater to gobble it up and make it all better again.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”