the order (2003)


director: brian helgeland

heath ledger, shannyn sossamon, peter weller

The reunion of director Brian Helgeland with stars Heath Ledger and Shannyn Sossamon is a long way from the arch medieval frolic that was A Knight's Tale. Whereas their previous work together was a cleverly ahistorical romp, The Order is a grim, lightless supernatural thriller set in the literal underbelly of the Vatican.

Ledger plays a hunky priest, one of the last living Carolingians, an obscure Catholic order, sent to Rome to help investigate the death of his mentor by a slick, powerful cardinal (Peter Weller, giving Christopher Walken a run for his money in the human skull sweepstakes.) He arrives in the Eternal City with Mora (Sossamon), a young woman recently escaped from an insane asylum where she'd been sent after trying to kill him at an exorcism - her exorcism, apparently.

Their connection, potent as it appears, is quickly glossed over and remains maddeningly unexplained, as is much of the plot's arcana, a farrago of sacred nonsense involving a "Black Pope", pagan death cults living in the city's catacombs, the borderline heresy of Ledger's own order, and a "sin-eater", an immortal who consumes the mortal sins of the dying, and thus poses a threat to the authority of the Church (played by the darkly handsome Benno Fürmann.) Inevitably, Weller's corrupt cardinal is introduced as a successor for an ailing pope - a barely-sketched subplot that's actually a potent glimpse of the film's "politics", muddled as they are.

It's a wildly overwrought, stygian load of holy baloney, appropriately shot by Nicola Pecorini in an inky and underlit pall of shadow. The sole moment of humour - alas, utterly undersold - is when Sossamon introduces herself, Ledger, and fellow Carolingian Father Thomas (Mark Addy) as the "Catholic Mod Squad". (Some part of me, alas, would love to see a "Catholic Mod Squad". This movie, unfortunately, doesn't deliver.)

It's also more than faintly anti-Catholic, built from the motley bones of a load of old anti-Papist propaganda dating back to the Reformation. It would be easy to dismiss if Helgeland didn't constantly lose opportunities for action sequences to dwell on endless scenes of Ledger and Fürmann debating this quack theology. The director obviously imagined that these scenes would play like Faustus and Satan debating over a soul's worth; they play like an overshot, notably pretentious commercial for some upmarket men's cologne.