Movie poster image courtesy of Wikipedia and Grandpasfootsoldier
"What a mess!". This is a riff on the famous Bette Davis quote "What a dump!" from the 1949 film "Beyond The Forest". However, "what a mess" applies to the 2003 film "The Order". I think writer/director Brian Helgeland must have missed working with Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon and Mark Addy so much after having assembled them for the 2001 film "A Knight's Tale", that he threw "The Order" into production just to have the pleasure of working with them again.
The melange of accents alone is enough to make you wonder. Heath Ledger does nothing to conceal his Aussie accent, Mark Addy does mask his British accent in order to invoke an Irish accent (I'm not joking) and Benno Fürmann speaks with what I'd have to classify as "unidentifiable European accent". I thought it might have been Russo-Polish, but given that he's German, and his character is supposed to have been Italian, I know my initial guess is unlikely.
When the film opens, we see an elderly priest on a bicycle, traversing Rome. Shocks of white hair flying in the wind, the priest arrives at a cupola which is evidently his residence, and also hasn't had the benefit of any substantial housekeeping since around the time the Magna Carta was signed. The priest, a Fr. Dominic, is visited by a man named William Eden (the enigmatic, nevertheless suave Benno Fürmann) who asks him if he's ready. Ready for a visit from Molly Maid is most likely, but no, Mr. Eden, it seems, has something much more sinister in mind. In the next scene we see a young priest, Fr. Alex, on his way into his church in New York City. Earnest, but at the same time unfeeling, Fr. Alex faces away from his congregants and toward the crucifix during Mass, and celebrates the Mass in Latin. (For those of you who aren't Roman Catholics, with some regional exceptions, Masses in America have been been celebrated in English since Vatican II, under Pope John XXIII in the early 1960's.) While distributing Communion, a communicant tells him "I need to speak to you", so after Mass we see him with Fr. Alex outside the church. The communicant is no other than Michael Cardinal Driscoll, Fr. Alex' Cardinal (played with a certain haminess by Peter Weller) to tell him that his mentor, Fr. Dominic, was found dead at his home in Rome, and that the Diocese of New York is sending Fr. Alex to Rome the following day. Cardinal Driscoll smokes cigarettes, has his own red cigarette case and cuts a figure I could only hope to describe as Max Von Sydow meets Prada.
Back at his home (the rectory), Fr. Alex phones his pal Fr. Thomas. It seems Fr. Alex, Fr. Thomas, and the late Fr. Dominic were the last remaining priests in an order called The Carolingians (again, as a Roman Catholic, the order is a fictitious one, I have to say this). This order's speciality, it seems, is in exorcising demons and laying to rest all forms of "the undead". Prior to Fr. Thomas' phone ringing, as a matter of fact, he's seen in France performing an exorcism on a fleeing man who runs out into a street and is immediately impaled by a florist's delivery van. Rushing up to the van, Fr. Thomas sees the dying man who takes on the countenance of a demon, and the demon taunts Fr. Thomas by telling him The Black Pope will soon rise to power and ascend the Papal Throne. (Again, as an RC, "the Black Pope" is a mention of an anti-Pope, or a pretender to the Papal Throne, or the "evil" Pope who supposedly will rule the church at the "end of days", per popular American lore. Sheesh, seriously I never hear stuff out of anyone like this when I'm in Italy, even when I'm hanging around the Vatican. I've heard specific stories of exorcism, but nothing about an evil Pope ruling at the end of days.) Barely does he have time to hang up the phone with Fr. Thomas, and Mara appears, telling Fr. Alex she was just released. Turns out that Mara (Shannyn Sossamon) has spent the past year in a mental health facility, and she and Fr. Alex met when Fr. Alex was investigating her brother's suspicious death. Apparently (this is implied) Fr. Alex felt she was possessed, and attempted an exorcism on Mara, who in turn attempted to murder him. Mara assures Fr. Alex she's fine (which isn't quite true, as she escaped from the facility) and she wants to go to Rome with him. (We're meant to believe she had the foresight to escape with her passport.)
Arriving in Rome, Fr. Alex and Mara (who looks like, despite the fact she had only the clothes on her back when she met Fr. Alex the night before, as though she could easily appear on the cover of "Vogue" magazine) go directly to Fr. Dominic's and find that there is writing on the table in some form of solid ash in Aramaic. Getting Mara settled in, Fr. Alex then departs for the morgue, bribes the attendant there, and observes on the late Fr. Dominic's body there are a couple of odd marks on his chest. The morgue attendant informs Fr. Alex that Fr. Dominic's body is going to be turned over to the state of Italy for burial, as he is a suicide due to an overdose of sleeping pills. Fr. Alex then seeks out a Bishop (and the identity of this Bishop is indeed a mystery, as the Pope is typically known as the Bishop of Rome, and the man to whom Fr. Alex speaks is definitely not the Pope), who ascertains that Fr. Dominic had been excommunicated and is therefore ineligible (doubly so because of the suicide) for burial in a consecreted cemetary. Fr. Alex has other ideas, however, and steals Fr. Dominic's body from the morgue, and with the assistance of two nuns, buries Fr. Dominic and is approached by his buddy Fr. Thomas, newly-arrived from France.
Back at the cupola, Frs. Alex, Thomas, and Mara pour over an old piece of parchment Fr. Dominic had procured in an antiquarian bookstore in Rome on "sin-eating". (Again, pardon me if my religious faith is showing, but this practice is frowned upon by Mother Church, who views it as heresy.) Cardinal Driscoll shows up just to say "howdy", Fr. Thomas takes Fr. Alex to a place called The Inferno (a club that makes the nightclub in "Star Wars" seem like a meeting of the Junior League) and they learn from a hooded figure named Chirac of a clue to a second, missing piece of parchment. In the meantime William Eden approaches Fr. Alex inside St. Peter's Basilica and reveals that he is a centuries-old sin-eater, and shows Fr. Alex how he became one. It seems William Eden's father and older brother were working on the construction of St. Peter's Basilica under the direction of Michaelangelo, and William's brother, Phillip fell. Phillip was refused last rites (a sacrament which used to be called extreme unction, now called the Annointing of the Sick) because the year before, while in Jerusalem, he permitted an Arab a drink of holy water. (Consumption of holy water as a beverage is taboo. Receiving the sacrament of Annointing of the Sick ensures the recipient dies in a state of grace and their soul is eligible to be received into the Kingdom of Heaven.)
I won't go into the rest of the plot, but I will say if I thought the accents were an interesting mix, the plot is also quite the mix. There is borrowing from/references (not overt) to Dante's Divine Comedy, the films "The Omen", "The Exorcist" and "The Ninth Gate". Using a name like "William Eden" is yet another attempt to wink at the viewer; "William" means "protector" and "Eden" is an ever-so obvious reference to Paradise.
The film's plot has gaping holes, and ultimately we are left feeling unsatisfied. As talented an actor as he was, as evidenced in vehicles like "Brokeback Mountain", "Ten Things I Hate About You", "The Dark Knight" and "Candy", Heath Ledger certainly deserved much better than this plot could possibly give him as an actor. Perhaps the next time Mr. Helgeland enjoys a cast so much, he could simply ask them to join him "ensemble" for a pleasant weekend in the country. Anything but a film that is as hopeless a mish-mash as "The Order". (And "The Disorder", would be a much more fitting title, as well as cover any "truth-in-advertising" clause 20th Century Fox may want to engage in for viewers of its films.)
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