Et in Arcadia Heath Ledger?

Anna, being the lovely and talented friend that she is, wrote the following film review especially for blogification. In my particular blog. At her request, I've attempted to honour all the original italics; because she's my favouritest banana, I've also left in all the double spaces after punctuation, which I normally find repulsive.

I’m going to tell you about Brian Helgeland’s movie The Order in just a moment, but first I am going to tell you about My Great Aunt Lil. Aunt Lil was a bit strange. One of the ways you could tell that she was strange was that she believed she should not eat chicken because her stomach had the shape of a boot, like Italy. Another is the fact that on that fateful November day in 1963, it wasn’t until her son came home from school and set her to rights that Lil realized it was Jack Kennedy who had been shot and not Jack Lemmon.

I mention to you Great Aunt, whom I have deemed a bit strange, to give you a scale that will help you to understand what I mean when I tell you that The Order is a very, very strange film. I am not calling it strange because I do not like it or because it is not immediately familiar to me. I say so because it is not quite like any other movie I have seen and because I honestly can’t decide whether or not it makes sense. I can get away with it because I review movies for Jeff’s blog, which encourages me to take stylistic risks, and not the New Yorker, which might require me to get to the point.

Taken as a coherent whole, The Order is quite original, although there’s no element of it you haven’t seen somewhere else before. Imagine a hybrid of The French Connection and A Nun’s Story. Who would have thought that crossing Gene Hackman with Audrey Hepburn would produce Heath Ledger?

Helgelend’s last movie, A Knight’s Tale was a period piece with a cynical attitude toward period. The film embraced the medieval romance as a fantasy, separating it almost entirely from history and embracing its anachronism as comedy. We don’t really want to be in old Europe it seemed to say, we just want to play at it. This time around Helgeland has plunged the renaissance into the 21st century. The Order confronts more directly the modern tendency toward arcadianism by giving us a handful of characters who can’t seem to get their heads out of apocryphal religious history.

Plot-wise, it’s a standard cop flick with a few minor changes. It even begins with the camera spinning around the shadowed, trench-coated figure of Alex (Ledger) looking down on the city (Rome) and telling us he wasn’t always like this, he used to have hope, etc. But Alex isn’t a cop with a reputation for flouting the rules, he’s a priest with a reputation for flouting Vatican II. His partner, Father Thomas (Mark Addy), isn’t a cop either, and their chain-smoking lieutenant has become a chain-smoking cardinal. Of course there’s a girl, Mara (Shannyn Sossamon), a gamine mental patient who wishes she could paint sunflowers instead of tulips but doesn’t “have the guts.” Not quite a stripper putting her way through college, but close. The rebel Alex is of course forced into confrontation by the death of his mentor, Dominic (Francesco Carnelutti, and not as I at first thought, Ralph Lauren on a bicycle). He and Thomas travel to Rome to enter the criminal underworld, except this time it’s really the underworld.

Strangest of all, in place of a kingpin drug dealer this film offers us William Eden (Benno Fürmann), a 5-or 6-hundred-year-old Sin Eater, often referred to as “The Other.” Although his title initially points to his being a follower of Lord Voldemort, we soon learn that Eden actually eats your sins. Like, with his mouth. And interestingly, despite his Italian suit and pointy goatee, Eden doesn’t seem to be the devil. Instead he’s someone who offers forgiveness on the black market. Dying excommunicati call him up and get him to eat their sins for them before they kick so that they can go to heaven.

If confession doesn’t seem at first like an interesting hinge for the plot, it isn’t. The script generates suspense by refusing to reveal to the audience things that are quite mundane to the characters. Incidents like an attack by demon children or Mara’s attempt to kill Alex during her exorcism are simply another day at the office for these folks. Helgelend could have milked a lot of lines for easy laughs by having the jaded crusaders go deadpan, but instead his actors come off as genuinely matter-of-fact. It saves the whole enterprise from hopeless naivete by refusing to make the good guys slick.

It’s fitting that the audience’s ignorance should be emphasized, because this film positively fetishizes ignorance in general. We’re just shy of clubbed to death with the blunt point that Alex’s tragic flaw is his hunger for knowledge. It’s a conceit that was pretty much played out with Faust. It is only made interesting by the fact that the possibly evil tempter is plugging that point, too. Eden is big on “the mystery that makes life mean something.” It is Eden, rather than certain wiser and more clearly good characters, who longs to regurgitate the fruit and bust his way back to the garden. Is innocence really delight, or is the devil just trying to get you to look away? After passionately exploring the dangers of knowledge, the film ends up adopting a very conventional idea of its importance. The climax hangs, in fact, on a clue--evidence written on a torn parchment no less.

One of the reasons I’m not sure any of the film’s successes were intentional is that the script flashes around terminology meant to impress the laypeople like an episode of ER. And it doesn’t really have much dramatic effect because what the characters treat as arcana are obvious to anyone with a tenth grade level Catholic education. To someone who’s been to a mass, the sin-eating is clearly a play on the function of the Eucharist, in which Catholics are taught to eat the body and drink the blood of christ in memory of his death for our souls’ sake. A corpse with slit wrists turned out on the table might as well wear a sign stating “Modern-Day Stigmata”. And trust me, if someone’s babbling in Latin about a rock, they’re not talking about a WWE smackdown, they’re talking about the basilica of St. Peter. You don’t need to be a Traditionalist Priest to figure that one out. And interlarded with the ecclesiastical vocab are banalities such as Mara’s promise, “It’s you and me till the wheels fall off.” Wasn’t that Nate Dogg’s line in “Next Episode”?

Especially given all the attention Mel Gibson’s Passion is getting, and Traditionalism along with it, I was sure Helgeland’s movie would a morality play on the direction of the modern Catholic Church. It seemed at first to be an argument for rejecting the 20th Century shift from mysticism to ministry. No ritual in this film is a symbol; every one is a weapon. When Father Thomas goes out in the night, he points his crucifix around the corner first, like a gun, and it literally blasts evil creatures away. Dying outside the established church will quite literally send characters to hell. Sin is a physical object (shaped like a squid, but nevermind) that can be surgically removed from your heart. At no point in the film is the argument raised, “Why should we believe that God’s forgiveness hinges on technicalities?” But the ending reveals that Alex’s insistence on looking to the past has made him a pawn in an evil plot. So maybe it’s meant to comment on the danger of treating our romances of the past as too literal, mistaking fantasies like A Knight’s Tale for lived experience. I wish I had enough confidence in the film to rule out the possibility that the tension between the two ideas is an accident of shoddy editing.

The strangest thing about this strange movie is that Helgeland may have pulled it off. I paid my money for a so-bad-it’s-good Heath Ledger flick and wound up so intrigued that I took notes on my napkins. It should have been transparently naïve and dismissable. Does the fact that I still haven’t dismissed it yet mean that it’s sophisticated or just that it’s opaque? Search me.


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