USA, 2002. Rated PG-13. 108 minutes.

Cast: Sofia Milos, Jason Isaacs, Emmy Rossum, Lupe Ontiveros, Seymour Cassel, Theresa Russell, Chris Tardio
Writers: Jim Jermanok, Steve Jermanok
Original music: Harry Gregson-Williams, Justin Caine Burnett (additional music), Geoff Zanelli (additional music)
Cinematographer: Claudio Rocha
Producer: David Bakalar
Director: Dan Ireland


Grade: C+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

When put out by a big studio with major stars, Passionada is the sort of film trashed by critics as a matter of course. A modest thumbs-up for Passionada, however, is not just a case of critical bias toward independent films. A Hollywood film based on the same script would insist on including actual sight gags, big musical cues, and tighter editing, whereas Passionda is content to get by on the appeal of its actors and the power of the traditional Portuguese fado music featured throughout. The fact that it's such a small film is an intrinsic part of its charm.

Passionada is a romantic comedy set in the Portuguese-American fishing community of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Apparently there's 280,000 Portuguese living in Massachusetts. They've maintained an ethnic identity there, including a number of clubs dedicated to fado. Film buffs may remember Madredeus from Wim Wenders' Lisbon Story. That's fado—haunting, heartbreaking urban folk music full of yearning and despair. All of the songs in Passionada are sung by Misia, Portugal's most famous fado singer today.

Celia Amonte (Sofia Milos, who isn't Portuguese, of CSI: Miami) does the obvious lip-synching, but we're supposed to believe she's actually singing like an internationally renowned diva in some podunk bar. Fado is about tragedy, and Celia's singing is inspired by the loss of her fisherman husband. Sofia Milos and Jason Isaacs in PASSIONADAThough he was taken by the sea many years ago and she's still quite young (impossibly young to be the mother of a seventeen-year-old), she's still the most married woman you'll ever meet—or so the bartender tells Charlie Beck (Jason Isaacs, who isn't Portuguese, seen as Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), a down-on-his-luck card counter immediately smitten by Celia. His efforts to court her are roundly rebuffed, which is where seventeen-year-old Vicky (Emmy Rossum, who isn't Portuguese, of Songcatcher), Celia's daughter, comes in. She'll play matchmaker if Charlie teaches her to count cards. Meanwhile, Celia's mother-in-law Angelica (Lupe Ontiveros, who isn't Portuguese, of Real Women Have Curves) provides gruff wisdom and grumpy comic relief at home. Seymour Cassel and Theresa Russell round out the cast as Charlie's friends, Daniel and Lois Rasuk. They aren't Portuguese either.

Milos is not the only woman playing a character older than she is. Rossum, a fourteen-year-old kid who bluffed her way through a casting process, is quite a find. Producer David Bakalar compares her to a very young Audrey Hepburn, and while comparing anyone to Audrey Hepburn is invariably an exaggeration, Rossum is at least in the vicinity of the Hepburn ballpark. In fact, she was actually a young Audrey Hepburn in an ABC Movie of the Week. Milos and Rossum are a pleasure, and so is getting to see Jason Isaacs, a leading-man-calibre actor with leading-man looks, actually getting to play a leading man instead of a brutal sword-twirling ne'er-do-well (The Patriot, the upcoming Peter Pan, the aforementioned Harry Potter movies).

Apart from the fado, Passionada is not all that passionate, it's not particularly believable, and a number of scenes just hang, like when Lois (Russell) visits Celia to make an appeal on behalf of Charlie. Presumably, anyway—we see Lois at the door pleading with Celia to let her in, Celia relents, and…that's it. We don't see the conversation, and Celia's attitude is completely unchanged after the conversation. There's no reason for that scene to be in the film, unless it's to give Theresa Russell screen time—not that her acting warrants it.

Thankfully, director Dan Ireland brings to Passionada the same easy touch and ambling pace that he used in the delightful The Whole Wide World, as opposed to the frenetic energy of his execrable The Velocity of Gary. The unfussy atmosphere should allow most audiences to buy into a film that would otherwise be just another pat romantic comedy. Passionada is a forgettable film, but one that's likely to put a smile on people's faces for a couple hours.

Review © August 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Samuel Goldwyn Films. All Rights Reserved.

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