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My treasured friend, the storied writer, civil rights leader and radical Baptist preacher Will Campbell was once asked if he believed in heaven. He answered by saying that the heaven he believed in was a place where Anne Frank chased Adolf Hitler around for 1,000 years until finally he stopped and let her pin a star of David on his tunic.

This poignant and challenging religious notion about the unfathomable nature of God's ability to shed his grace upon the unjust as well as the just comes close to summarizing in a sentence everything that I understand to be the message of the New Testament. Campbell's point is that if the human mind wants to imagine the power of divine forgiveness, it must contemplate redemption for the unredeemable. For a time as I watched writer/director Brian Helgeland's The Order, I thought that he was trying to wrestle with Will Campbell's astonishing notion that even Osama Bin Laden and Mohammed Atta might be redeemed if they would stop and allow God's grace to shine into their angry hearts. Alas, such hopes of religious daring are dashed by a screenplay that is as muddle-brained and ultimately as contemptible as anything I've seen in some seasons.

The narrative in The Order concerns a young Catholic priest named Alex (Heath Ledger) who belongs to a diminishing tradition that rivals the Jesuits in its pursuit of knowledge. The order's senior authority and educator, Father Dominic (Francesco Carnelutti), dies at the film's outset, not long after he's been excommunicated for heresy. It's not clear whether he's committed suicide or has been murdered. Alex is dispatched to Rome by Cardinal Driscoll (Peter Weller) to investigate Dominic's death. The Cardinal is a leading candidate to succeed an ailing Pope, and for reasons that are never clear and ultimately nonsensical, Driscoll seems to think that his own ascension necessitates Alex's involvement in the mystery of Dominic's death.

Alex's investigation leads him to conclude that Dominic ended his life with the assistance of the Sin Eater, an immortal character in the human form of William Eden (Benno Furmann), and here's where the film gets theologically interesting and ultimately infuriating. Early in the 16th century, we learn, Eden succeeded an earlier Sin Eater as an opponent of church rigidity. When those who had been excommunicated by papal authority lay dying, they might call upon Eden to administer last rites and secure a passage into paradise that the church by its rulings denied them. Alex discovers that Dominic sought a pass through the St. Peter's gates via Eden's intercession, but he also discovers that the Sin Eater always demands a commission for his services. Commonly, Eden takes his fee in material lucre. But Dominic, it seems, a priest without earthly possession, has agreed to render Alex unto Eden, as the latter has become fatigued by 400 years of difficult service and would like to retire to paradise himself. Eden can only accomplish this release, however, by handing over the onerous duties of the Sin Eater to someone else. In part, the film attempts its narrative tension with the questions of whether or not Alex might be a willing candidate as Eden's successor and, if not, can he be seduced?

At this point, I must hasten to establish that I was not raised a Catholic and that there might be elements of Roman reference, criticism and even affirmation that I have simply missed. I am certainly aware of the sad scandals about sexual child abuse that have afflicted the Catholic church and the concern of more progressive forces (with whom I sympathize) about the archaic nature of clerical celibacy. Lest this believing but not affiliated Baptist be seen as pointing any finger at Catholics, however, let me say that what seems at one glance the film's condemnation of institutional Christian hypocrisy rings true to me whether directed at Catholic or Protestant.

I might bemoan the almost ridiculous opaqueness of this film's narrative developments. We haven't a clue about the Roman dungeon that Alex and his compadre Thomas (Mark Addy) enter in pursuit of the truth about Dominic's death. That they seem to tolerate there the ritual murder of other priests causes us to lose faith in the entire film's storytelling objectives. Still, as a believer who remains mightily critical of the institutional church, I remain for a time intrigued that Helgeland is trying to offer a serious critique of the fundamental way in which institutional Christian religion has strayed from the radical message of Jesus Christ. In such hope, however, I am a mere sucker. In the end, I haven't the vaguest notion of Helgeland's intentions. But I will say with great confidence that his idea of valid vengeance and absolute moral clarity offend every religious impulse I hold dear. In short, I started out rooting for this picture even through its clumsiness, and in the end I denounce it in the strongest possible terms.

Catholic priest Alex (Heath Ledger) investigates - shenanigans in the church in The Order.
  • Catholic priest Alex (Heath Ledger) investigates shenanigans in the church in The Order.

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