“Make that exorcise, not exercise.” So went a little momentary joke of enunciation in “The Order,” writer-director Brian Helgeland’s romantic thriller soaked in crank theology, graven images and big, biblical ideas. More of that would’ve been pleasing — but may have given the game away.
Heath Ledger plays Alex Bernier, a young Catholic priest of an ancient order called the Carolingians, a breakaway sect eyed suspiciously by the Vatican hierarchy for — this is hard to swallow — being too conservative and superstitious.
One of their number, Bernier’s aging mentor (Francesco Carnelutti), undergoes a mysterious ceremony in the film’s opening and turns up dead in his dusty loft, drawing Bernier from his New York City parish to Rome to investigate the shady scene.
He calls into action his pal Thomas Garrett (Mark Addy), a portly, worldly, boozy priest serving God and offing demons in Paris. He also sneaks out of the country his celibate heart’s true love, Mara Sinclair (Shannyn Sossamon), an escaped mental patient who had tried to kill Bernier during a demon cleansing gone awry.
In Rome, which the Italian cinematographer Nicola Pecorni captures sumptuously in a film that’s otherwise oppressively dark, cloistered and saturated of color, the trio (who worked together in Mr. Helgeland’s “A Knight’s Tale”) encounter a venal priest with papal ambitions (Peter Weller).
The pope-in-waiting is window dressing, though, for the real deal of “The Order”: a velvet-suited playboy (Benno Furmann) who claims to be able to “eat” people’s sins in an ancient, heretical ceremony of near-death atonement consisting of bread, salt and mumbo-jumbo recitation.
“The Order” works on a certain level because it so unironically renders a story world where demons and other manifestations of the spirit realm are part of the ho-hum scenery, secondary characters we’re supposed to take for granted; where people haven’t discarded the idea of demons and Satan and perdition into Max Weber’s dustbin of sociology. Where exercising isn’t a state religion and exorcising is as routine as breaking a sweat.
If the movie slipped out of its shell of magical realism, even for a second, it would’ve unraveled faster than you could say “Return to hell from whence you came.”
Mr. Helgeland’s film, which went under the more colorful, if a little clownish, name of “Sin Eater” before the blander, safer “The Order” won out, had been parked in inventory for the better part of this year — due to special effects shortcomings, according to industry dish.
Plus, it opened this past weekend without having been pre-screened by critics, a sure sign that the studio fears it’s pan bait. I can’t figure out why.
“The Order” has its flaws, sure. For a movie so grand in its pretensions, it’s at times facilely written, for one. For example, Mr. Helgeland makes sporting reference to the film’s swashbuckling religious trio as a “Catholic Pete, Linc and Julie” — i.e, “The Mod Squad” TV detectives.
And for a movie with so many scary hobgoblins and a plot that’s supposed to make your hair stand on end, it can be downright boring. Its dialogue is laden with lots of gnostic riddles and dead-language crosstalk — as if we’re supposed to be wowed by pretty-boy Mr. Ledger speaking Latin and making hide and hare of old parchment.
Still, “The Order” comes off surprisingly smart. Mr. Helgeland may have overblown the myth of the “sin eater,” but he adumbrates a few serious ideas: most importantly, the Christian doctrine of Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice on the cross, and how the less than faithful have sought to find end-runs around that exclusive route of salvation.
This is no place for romance — “The Order” fails big time at sensuality and passion — but it’s intriguing, diverting and may even incite you to think a big thought or two.
TITLE: “The Order”
RATING: R (Bloody, disturbing rituals; graphic violence; profanity; some sexuality)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Brian Helgeland. Produced by Mr. Helgeland and Craig Baumgarten. Cinematography by Nicola Pecorini.
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS