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With a song in her heart: Milos in Passionada.

My Big Fat Portuguese Romance
By Ann Morrow

Directed by Dan Ireland

There isn’t anything earthshaking about Passionada, the story of a widowed Portuguese mother and a washed-up gambler who give each other a second chance. And that’s part of its appeal: Written by two first-time screenwriters, Schenectady natives Jim and Stephen Jermanok, the film has a leisurely and amusing realism that goes a long way toward making a predictable situation fresh and affecting. So does the setting of a Portuguese community of New Bedford, Mass. Although the characters’ working-class milieu is prettified (easy enough, since it’s on the seashore), the enclave’s colorful culture has the flavor of authenticity.

Raven-haired bombshell Sofia Milos is Celia Amonte, a cabaret singer whose husband was lost at sea seven years previous. Celia works in a factory by day and watches over her beautiful and newly boy-crazy daughter, Vicky (Emmy Rossum), by night. Celia herself doesn’t date; she’s devoted to the memory of her husband, who is forever young, dashing, and madly in love with her in her beloved photo album. Celia shares a two-family house with her wise but meddlesome mother-in-law (Lupe Ontiveros), and the three woman sometimes get on each other’s nerves, but without rancor. The family is grounded by traditional values, and Celia has no desire to move beyond the time-honored way of life of their fishing village.

When Celia is approached by Charlie Beck (Jason Isaacs) after a performance, she quickly sizes him up for the ne’er-do-well womanizer he is. Make that was—after hearing Celia belt out a song body and soul, Charlie is smitten, a fortuitous turn in his deepening dissatisfaction with his meaningless life. Charlie has already done time for counting cards, and after getting caught at a local casino, he finally realizes that being a gambler is a losing proposition. But to entice Celia out on a date, he employs some sleight-of-hand involving a Porsche and a yacht, both belonging to a wealthy couple (Seymour Cassel and Theresa Russell) he knows from Monte Carlo. Will the love of a good woman reform him? Can Celia find it in her tempestuous heart to forgive his venial sins of infatuation? And more important—at least to moviegoers weary of mindless summer blockbusters—will their mature but heated romance be able to withstand director Dan Ireland’s rose-colored lenses?

The answer is yes, yes, and sort of. Isaacs is utterly natural and likeable as the scheming but sincere card shark; it’s easy to see why this A-list Hollywood villain (The Patriot, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) would appear in this small-budget indie. Not only does he play the lead, but he also gets to talk like a real person. And so does everyone else: Wry and pithy dialogue is the film’s strongest draw. “What are we here, girlfriends?” chastises Celia when Vicky tries to play matchmaker. (Vicky is so full of herself that her eyes widen at her own insouciance.) And Celia’s repertoire of fado songs (kind of like Spanish torch songs) is a knockout. The earth doesn’t move during Charlie’s and Celia’s wary courtship, but their articulate turbulence is likely to keep a smile on your face all the way through. And after a long, dank summer of onscreen sleaze and violence, there’s a lot to be said for that.

Everybody Comes to Mike’s

The Holy Land
Directed by Eitan Gorlin

First-time filmmaker Eitan Gorlin’s biting and rueful The Holy Land is as pessimistic about contemporary Israel as one might expect. Gun-crazy ideologues, greedy collaborators, demented religious zealots and innocent whores exist side-by-side in a country where every stray knapsack is a potential bomb, and every lamb (literal or figurative) is ripe for sacrifice. Gorlin’s film finds some wicked black humor in this, and a love story that isn’t too sweet to be believed.

When 20-year-old rabbinical student Mendy (Oren Rehany) tells his rabbi father that he wants to move to Jerusalem because it may help him regain the “spark” that has gone out of his vocation, his father gives him his blessing, and more: The father confesses being jealous because, in Jerusalem, God is in “every stone, every glass of water.” God seems to be absent from the Jerusalem Mendy discovers, however—and if God’s not totally absent, then He is definitely keeping to Himself.

Then again, Mendy’s move to The Holy Land’s ground zero is made in religious bad faith. Distracted from his studies by youthful lust, Mendy is advised by a sympathetic rabbi to get it out of his system by visiting a “harlot” (and if she’s not Jewish, the rabbi adds, all the better).

Mendy meets his harlot all right, a young Ukrainian beauty named Sasha (Tchelet Semel). Rather than work off his lusts, however, he falls in love. He also falls in with a motley crowd of expatriates and freaks at a lively dive called Mike’s Place. Mike (Saul Stein) is a garrulous ex-war photographer with money problems and a taste for dope, drink and women; Mike takes a fatherly interest in the young saint, tutoring Mendy in the ways of sin. Other regulars include a gun-toting settler from New York who styles himself “the exterminator” (Arie Moskuna) and an Arab named Razi (Albert Illuz) with murky business connections. Unlike the regulars at Rick’s Place in Casablanca—a setting this film is clearly referencing—the desperate denizens of Mike’s aren’t looking to get out. They’re reveling in their desperation.

With their selfish lusts, mixed motives and apolitical dealings, Gorlin seems to suggest, these people are the moral mirrors of the self-absorbed religious types on both sides of the conflict. Good-humored they may be, but they prove to be as culpable for the violent bloodletting as any zealous believer.

While the fate of the romance between Sasha and Mendy is foreordained, the film’s ending remains in doubt right up until the tragic last images. In The Holy Land, the question isn’t whether the innocent are doomed; it’s which lamb will be slaughtered.

—Shawn Stone

To the Eighth Circle of Hell

The Order
Directed by Brian Helgeland

Like plagues of locusts, they come at regular intervals. The Order—an occult thriller seemingly left over from the 1999-2000 glut of cryptically imbecilic bible studies such as Stigmata, Lost Souls, End of Days, and Bless the Child—is not embellished with stuttered tracking shots of startled doves, nor does it have Gabriel Byrne among the cast. Even so, this numbing exercise in ecclesiastical malarkey can be considered the worst of the lot.

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, auteur of the colossally silly A Knight’s Tale, The Order is an abysmal example of how the filmmaker (Conspiracy Theory, Payback) dispenses with simple logic to pander to a concept. In this case, the concept is a centuries-old blasphemous practice that briefly undermined the power of the Catholic Church. Heath Ledger plays the erudite priest, Father Alex, who discovers this practice, and the film opens, as these things usually do, with the death of the head of his order. The Carolingians, as they’re called, are an obscure (and fictional) sect dedicated to casting out demons. Members of the order need only to brandish a crucifix while yelling “I order you back to hell!” to be rid of pesky tormentors from the underworld (making the job a lot easier than it was in days of The Exorcist). Anyway, the order is now down to two: Father Alex and Father Thomas (Mark Addy) from Ireland. Accompanied, temptingly enough, by an alluring artist (Shannyn Sossaman) recently released from an insane asylum, Alex goes to Rome to investigate the suspicious suicide of his mentor. Ledger, Addy and Sossaman starred together in A Knight’s Tale, but they have less chemistry than total strangers.

While perusing the requisite rare manuscript, Alex finds a clue: It’s a sin eater, and this one goes by the self-promoting name of William Eden (German actor Benno Furmann). For a price, he “eats” the sins of the wicked, who then receive the divine equivalent of a get-out-of-hell card and ascend to heaven without passing Go. Eden is similar to a vampire, but with better perks, like walking around in daylight and having sex. The downside is that consuming the sins of others and being bombarded by the departed’s evil deeds produces something akin to a bad acid flashback, or so the cheesy freak-out effects would have us believe.

The pursuit of the sin eater takes the two priests through the blurry murk of the Eternal City to an S&M nightclub where the dungeonlike VIP room is presided over by a hooded figure on a throne. Since the hood doesn’t have any holes, it’s a wonder Oh High and Mighty One can breath, let alone recognize an acquaintance from across the Atlantic. According to this mystery man, the answers to really tough questions are known only by the dying, and right on cue, two men are hanged on the spot. One of them obligingly answers Alex’s unperturbed query before death spasms set in. To top off this ludicrous bit of business, Thomas later returns to the club—alone. Aside from the gratuitously sicko set pieces, the film is depressingly slack, with characters intoning psuedo-arcana with all the conviction of reading directions off a bottle of allergy relief. Meanwhile, the talentless Addy is saddled with lines of campy humor that only increase the film’s quease factor. Slick, icky, and moronic, The Order inspired one online pundit to announce: “I order this movie back to hell!” To which I’ll add: “And Helgeland with it!”

–Ann Morrow

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