House of Sand and Fog

Heath Ledger, Mark Addy. Directed and written by Brian Helgeland
Running Time: 102 mins
Rated: R
I'm sure lawyers get cranky watching courtroom dramas and surgeons tire of the mistakes made in ER programmes. I'm the same when the cinema comes onto my patch - the priestly and religious life.

Fr Alex Bernier (Ledger) is a member of a near extinct order called the Carolingians. Of them it is libellously said in the film, "you Carolingians even surpass the Jesuits in your heretical search for knowledge. It's important to stay inside the lines." More on that in a moment. When Fr Dominic (Francesco Khan lefty) dies, it's claimed that he took his own life. The only other Carolingians left in the world can't believe it, so Fr Alex and Fr Thomas (Addy) arrive in Rome to find out who or what killed their brother. Here they meet the mysterious William Eden (Benno Furmann) who is a professional "sin eater" and was the last person to see Fr Dominic alive.

Sin Eater is all about demonic possession, with a celibate crisis thrown in for good measure. All the usual signs of the demon genre are in evidence in this film: the evil children; the candle lit room which leads to a fire; the cemetery; the subterranean cave wherein a Satan figure presides - this time around he's called the "Dark Pope'; the lack of free will in the people upon whom evil exerts its power; and the haunted house.

What's most annoying about Brian Helgeland's script is that he's done a little research into his topic, but not nearly enough. It was possible for wealthy people in medieval Europe to pay others to do acts of penance for them. It's an early example of out-sourcing. The practise came to be roundly condemned as denying personal culpability for sin and the importance of personal contrition. Drawing on this history and using the word Carolingian, which is better known as a reform movement in the church and society in the 8th Century, Sin Eater is cloaked with an aura of factuality that it does not deserve. For all of its pretensions Sin Eater is a silly, gothic, horror melodrama.

Because Helgeland directs his own script he has to take responsibility for scores of small and large mistakes throughout the film. Apart from his gratuitous digs at the Jesuits, Helgeland has the very conservative Fr Alex say a Latin Mass with a lace alb, but no soutane underneath. I don't think so. Later he says Mass without a chasuble at all. He also refers to his congregation as his audience. Alex is a very liberal traditionalist indeed! Although set today, it's claimed that people who commit suicide cannot be buried from the church or in consecrated ground. Not true. And when the characters talk about the history of "sin eating', they descend into theological tosh, even by medieval standards.

And don't believe everything you see. Though it appears as though several scenes were shot in St Peter's Basilica, these scenes are a tribute to excellent digital effects rather than any Vatican support for the story.

This film was shot in 2001. It's claimed that the release date was held up because when the 20th Century Fox executives saw the digitised demons, they looked like calamari. Well now they look like squid, and I take evil far too seriously to reduce it to a fisherman's basket.

Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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