Corrections were made to this review on August 13, 2003.
An old-fashioned romantic yarn strung against the backdrop of New England’s Portuguese community, “Passionada” is a lovely, albeit imperfect fable marked by strong performances and infused with glorious bursts of soulful fado folk music. Pic, with helmer Dan Ireland revisiting the lovers’ terrain he trod deftly in his tyro feature “The Whole Wide World,” could score as a late summer alternative, drawing a femme and date-night crowd. And it should strike a chord with the largely untapped Portuguese-American contingent (“Mystic Pizza” notwithstanding) that, while probably not as “fat” as the “Greek Wedding” guest list, is hardly insignificant.
Though not as complex or poignant as “The Whole Wide World” — the 1930s-set Renee Zellweger-Vincent D’Onofrio starrer about the unlikely love between a pulp writer and a schoolteacher — “Passionada” offers a charming romance between an equally mismatched pair. Edited since its debut at last year’s Seattle Film Fest, pic appears to have been tweaked with an eye toward maximizing crowd-pleasing potential. That should help get Ireland back up to speed after having decelerated with “The Velocity of Gary.”
Sofia Milos plays Portuguese immigrant Celia Amonte, a widowed seamstress-by-day, fado singer by night. Opening sequence set in New Bedford, Mass., offers concise exposition: On the seventh anniversary of her husband’s death at sea, Celia, her teenaged daughter Vicky (Emmy Rossum) and mother-in-law Angelica (a sage and irrepressible Lupe Ontiveros), joined by townsfolk, throw a commemorative wreath into the ocean.
That night the precocious Vicky steals away to a local casino, whereupon she meets dashing British card shark Charlie Beck (Jason Isaacs). Charlie adamantly refuses the girl’s plea to teach her his gambling skills.
A nomadic con man with a lengthy rap sheet, Charlie has come to visit his old friends Lois Rasuk (Theresa Russell) and her martini-swilling husband Daniel (Seymour Cassel). Upon hearing Celia sing at a local bar, the stirred and smitten Charlie asks her out, but she bluntly declines. He returns the next night; Celia, who hasn’t dated since her husband’s death, again refuses. “Passionada” comes alive in the all too-brief fado sequences.
Unglamorous in her daytime life, Celia is stunning behind the microphone. Rife with pain and longing, the songs (recorded by Portuguese fado star Misia but synched to perfection by Milos) rise above the prosaic story and yield to intoxicating reverie; when they end, it’s like being forcibly awakened from a dream.
Undaunted, Charlie goes to her house determined to try again. Instead he finds Vicky, with whom he reluctantly strikes a deal: He’ll teach her a few gambling tricks in exchange for help with her mother. Warned that Celia would never date a gambler, Charlie presents himself as a fish industry tycoon, and after a tentative start, Celia allows herself to fall in love again.
Courting sequences are generally appealing, if not played too much for laughs. But the overlong and bliss-filled second act demands conflict, so Charlie’s conscience eventually forces him to come clean to a horrified Celia.
Such a simplistic storyline might have deflated “Passionada” but for its principal cast members, each of whom seems poised for bigger things. Milos, a regular on “CSI: Miami” who is of Greek and Italian descent, makes Celia a complicated and sympathetic heroine. An unconventional dark beauty whose looks defy easy classification, she so commands the viewer’s gaze it’s easy to believe Celia’s angst and voice are her own.
Isaacs, whose generous proboscis renders him more a character actor than a leading man, made his biggest mark as the villainous Lucius Malfoy in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” He’ll continue in that vein in P.J. Hogan’s forthcoming “Peter Pan,” but Isaacs is so appealing here as the good-hearted scoundrel, transcending a thinly-written role, that he will surely segue to a wider character range.
But the odds-on favorite for fame is Rossum (“Songcatcher”), a ravishing and disarmingly confident young actress with a lethal combination of talent and looks. There’s a rare old-school quality to her work here that recalls the young Teresa Wright or Ann Blyth. Rossum, a trained soprano, has nabbed the lead in Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Dominated by this trifecta, Russell and Cassel, in sorely underwritten parts, are left with little to do. No matter: “Passionada” offers other attractions, including Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, and Claudio Rocha’s sumptuous lensing that makes effective use of New Bedford’s exquisite natural light.