In a candlelit room in Rome, a young American priest slowly undresses a beautiful brunette. She’s loved him for a long time and he finally submits to her, breaking his vows. The scene is exquisitely shot, without a word of dialogue as Heath Ledger and Shannyn Sossamon make love on a Persian carpet. In a moment of transcendent beauty, a man gives up his soul and a young woman surrenders her future. Only the power of cinema can reveal that passion and its consequences.
Originally released in 2003, The Order on Blu-Ray highlights the strengths of the film. It’s brilliantly shot and scored, particularly the scenes in Italy. The film transfer is first rate with razor-sharp HD video. The audio track in DTS-HD is equally impressive, providing a crisp surround experience. Add in an excellent cast and you have the potential for a great film.
However, all of these qualities cannot hide the film’s major flaws. The Order was written, directed, and produced by Brian Helgeland, so all credit and blame resides on his doorstep.
Ledger plays Alex, a member of the Carolingians, a renegade Catholic sect that specializes in exorcisms and hauntings. When Dominic, the head of the order, dies mysteriously, Alex is summoned to Rome to investigate. He inexplicably brings Mara (Shannyn Sossamon), a beautiful young woman who was traumatized by an exorcism and has recently escaped from an asylum.
Mara: I’ve never been to Rome.
Alex: Promise you won’t try to kill me this time.
Mara: Cross my heart.
In a post 9-11 world, one wonders how Mara, an escaped mental patient, can board a plane in New York City when the police are looking for her.
When Alex arrives in Rome, he discovers the existence of a ‘sin eater’, an immortal being with the power to consume the sins of others. He offers salvation to the damned—for a price. In the words of a church elder: “A sin eater is a renegade who provides a path to heaven… outside the church, outside the power of Christ.”
The sin eater is a sophisticated aristocrat named Eden (Benno Furmann) who’s an effective foil to the intellectual Alex. The problem here is that Eden’s moral nature is never fully explained. Alex’s sidekick Thomas baldly states, “I think he’s evil!” yet that claim is never proven. When confronted by Alex, Eden is cagey about his true nature. “Am I a man? I eat, shave, and make love. Does that make me a man?”
Another persistent problem is dialog loaded with exposition, as in the opening scene as Dominic takes communion inside his garret in Rome:
Eden: Brother Dominic… scholar of Catholic arcane. Believer in the un-sanitized church of stigmata and exorcism.
Dominic: I believe in many things.
This dialog is stiff and unnatural—Dominic’s background can be revealed in other ways. The Order is sometimes too clever for its own good. A church elder refers to Alex’s report of a sin eater by stating, “You couldn’t have shocked the bishop more if you were possessed by a Phoenician demon.”
This is a veiled reference to The Exorcist and its demon Pazuzu, a film that Helgeland obviously admires and tries to emulate. It’s illustrative to compare these two films, for they’re both concerned with the same themes—occult knowledge and the nature of evil. The Exorcist is tightly written, enthralling, and terrifying. The Order is none of these things, but it does have moments of brilliance.
When Eden is summoned to the deathbed of a Mafia don, the attending physician challenges him.
Physician: What can you do for him that I haven’t?
Eden: Science and medicine… you measure life with a ruler and a scale. You take away the mystery that gives life meaning. You pretend to understand, but you know nothing.
This is the best line in the film, a stirring rebuke of rationalism.
The Order will be remembered as one of the major films of the late Heath Ledger. The performances of Ledger and Furmann nearly save The Order as both actors provide dramatic weight to their roles with a keen understanding of their characters.
Alex is an anachronism, a scholar of the occult born in the wrong century, who would be more at home in a medieval scriptorium than a modern parish. Eden is just the opposite, a man of clear purpose with no room for doubt or weakness. Furmann plays the immortal sin eater with Shakespearean grandeur.
Helgeland has an uncanny knack for staging dramatic scenes, and he does this well. He also has an aesthetic sensibility that can be quite moving, as when Mara describes sunflowers to Alex as God’s “brilliant mistake”, an apt metaphor for their doomed relationship. However, Helgeland is a much better director than writer; his script is plagued by plot holes, banal dialog and exposition that eventually sink the film.
The extras on the Blu-Ray disc include deleted scenes, trailer, and director’s commentary.