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The Order

Director: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon, Mark Addy, Benno Fürmann, Peter Weller, Francesco Carnelutti

(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 5 Sep 2003; 2003)


A looming silhouette fills the screen, robes rustling. “Every life is a riddle,” begins the solemn voiceover. “The answer to mine is knowledge born of darkness.” And so, you think, he’s going to tell you just how he’s come to be this silhouette, lonely and looming. Before that, though, he continues, “In the beginning, the mystery still remained.” And so, The Order be about that mystery part.

This first shot is set in Rome, where rustling robes are fairly common attire. And here, you learn immediately, adherents to the Catholic Faith are expected to shut up and do as they’re told, and most definitely not seek out knowledge, whatever it’s born of. Any sign of overweening earns swift, horrendous punishment. Put another way, as the film so neatly summarizes, “Knowledge is the enemy of faith.”

So as to complicate what seems this simple enough edict, The Order offers a handsome young (read: rebel) priest, Alex (Heath Ledger), trained in Rome and now ministering in NYC, where he stubbornly conducts his mass in Latin, like a crotchety old-schooler. This has earned him something of a reputation within the Church, though for what exactly, is not clear. He is called to Rome when his mentor, an excommunicated Carolingian priest named Dominic (Francesco Carnelutti), commits apparent suicide. It’s up to Alex and his fellow mentee Thomas (Mark Addy)—they being the last members of this order—to identify the body (though everyone in the Vatican knows who it is), solve the puzzle of Dominic’s death which is not precisely a suicide, and perhaps attain some knowledge, about something. I think that about sums it up.

Alex has a roundabout route through this morass, partly because he brings along a beautiful painter of sunflowers, Mara (Shannyn Sossamon), who has just escaped from a mental hospital, where she was locked up following her attempt to kill Alex. Again, her motivation is a mystery—they met some years before, when he was called into do perform an exorcism on her, and during that ordeal, she fell in love with him and decided to deal with it as best she could, that is, by murder. She arrives on Alex’s doorstep at this point, she says, because “I heard you call me; I got a feeling that I should with you in case one of us has to say good-bye.” Evidently, this is sufficient explanation for Alex, who says only that she has to promise not to try to kill him when they get to Rome.

Once they arrive in town, Mara mostly stays in Dominic’s dusty, cavernous, monkish home while the boys poke around (Alex tells Thomas he’s brought her because “she thinks differently,” but really, she’s there to serve as earthly temptation for Alex when he inevitably decides to break the Church’s rules as a means to defy its corruptions.) Among their adventures is a trip to a graveyard, where Alex sanctifies Dominic burial illegally (he’s officially a suicide), where, as per their illicit training with Dominic, they “deal with ghosts and demons and all manner of undead.” They must do this encumbered by rather terrible special effects, such that ghoulish looking children and whooshy things swoop over their heads, make a lot of noise, and when met with a cross and some brief incantation (essentially, “Get thee back to hell!”), duly evaporate.

The crew learns they have been assembled in Rome by Driscoll (Peter Weller, whose face looks painfully stretched), who is, not incidentally, angling for Popedom (that is, he has an interest in getting Alex to do something specific, a point Alex does not see right away). When he comes to size them up, and scoffs at their youth and arrogance, Mara offers what may be the film’s most cogent self-description: “We’re the Catholic Pete, Linc, and Julie.” At which point, he pulls out a very shiny and apparently very old “instrument,” that is, a knife, with which he instructs them to kill the Sin-eater.

This would be 500-year-old William Eden (Benno Fürmann, Franka Potente’s partner in The Princess and the Warrior [2000]), who is the only means to get around the Church, being extremely well paid to absorb someone’s sins before that someone dies, allowing him to enter heaven even if he hasn’t exactly toed moral or institutional lines throughout his life (someone might, for example, “get away with murder,” without having to repent or acknowledge God or any of that stuff). In fact, this is an intriguing idea, especially given recent turmoil concerning famous Church members’ own efforts to get around their own rules; the film’s corny set-pieces (a religious mucky-muck in a mask out of the orgies in Eyes Wide Shut looks less awesome than inane) and frankly terrible construction (it feels like it’s been hacked up and put back together in a hurry) doesn’t bring this idea to any sort of climax, or work through its likely complications.

Better, Eden and Alex (despite and because of needy Mara’s entreaties) nurture a provocatively sexual attraction, based on a shared rage at “the order” and penchant for manipulating the folks around them (not to mention tripping lightly through plot turns that emerge from seeming nowhere). Alex predictably protests that he is unlike Eden, but he soon learns otherwise. Just not soon enough.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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