The Sin Eater* (2003)
“The terrible thing about the truth is that sometimes you find it.”
With this stylishly shot tale of intrigue and Vatican politics, the modern movie industry shines a technicolour spotlight on what had previously been an obscure and secretive folk ritual. Screenwriter and director Brian Helgeland expertly blends arcane ritual with Catholic chic as it lifts the lid on a timeless world of forbidden knowledge and those mortals who seek it out.
The late Heath Ledger heads up a cast of well-crafted and entertaining characters as he attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding his mentor’s apparent suicide, a cardinal sin for a man who was already excommunicated. Ledger’s portrayal of Alex Bernier puts an accessible face on this tale of high ritual and realpolitik.
Bernier and his friend Thomas Garrett are the last of the Carolingians, a Catholic order that still embraces the unsanitised church of angels and demons, possession and exorcism. Although something of an embarrassment to the modern Vatican orthodoxy, the two young priests are tasked with investigating rumours that their excommunicated mentor had found redemption through the Other, the Sin Eater.
Peter Weller is aging brilliantly, and he’s never looked or sounded better as Cardinal Driscoll, the Vatican power broker and papal pretender who tasks the two priests with confirming the rumours. The church believes that the existence of a man who can bypass papal authority and guide a heretic soul into heaven is something of a theological loose end, a loose end which should’ve been tied up some centuries before.
As their search drags the two friends ever further into darkness, Bernier begins to understand that tracking down the Sin Eater is just the start of his own personal pilgrimage. As he discovers more about that hidden side door into the afterlife, he also sees that same truth reflected in himself, the course of his own life and the church that set him on his path so many years before. Eventually that newfound knowledge will force him to re-examine all that he believes to be true, and sends his life in an altogether different direction.
Billed as a pretty standard tale of murky goings on in the heart of the Vatican, the profound ideas driving this movie and its wonderfully stylised execution elevate it far above your average Catholicism-is-really-not-that-great yawn fest.
This movie barely seems to be trying as it effortlessly explores the age-old idea of redemption through sacrifice. In this case the Sin Eater assumes the burden of sin himself, thus releasing the soul of the dying and allowing its progression to the afterlife. It also neatly crystallises the endless struggle for truth, and hammers home the stark warning that once discovered, the truth will never allow life to continue as it did before.
Although admittedly on the fanciful side, The Sin Eater is a move that manages to entertain and yet still holds true to its more profound message. Behind the lavish backdrops and frightening effects is a very human story of life, death and self-discovery; beautifully revealed as the aging, world weary Other at last finds peace and is thus reborn and re-imagined for a more modern age.
Watch the trailer here and enjoy number 4 in my occult top 10.
* Also known as “The Order.”