Times Staff Writer

It's hard to imagine a movie going more completely wrong than "Death of an Angel" (Beverly Center Cineplex). Once you get its drift, you sit there, suspecting what's coming and saying to yourself that they wouldn't dare try to get away with that. But they do, they do. Every cursed time.

No sooner is Bonnie Bedelia ordained as Los Angeles' first Episcopal female priest than her unhappy teen-age daughter (Pamela Ludwig), confined to a wheelchair since a car accident (which also took her father's life), is spirited away by her Mexican nurse (Irma Garcia) to be cured by a cult leader (Nick Mancuso, with a fake Mexican accent) called Angel. Somewhere in the desert, Angel administers to a flock seemingly made up entirely of illegal aliens. Angel and his followers are menaced greatly by Los Coyotes, a band of vicious border mafiOso types led by a merciless old man, also wheelchair-bound. Talk about piling it on right from the start.

What Romanian emigre writer Petru Popescu, in his feature directorial debut, has in mind is to pit Bedelia and Mancuso in a debate over the nature of faith while maneuvering them into a conflict with the Coyotes. (Apparently, the gangsters see great shakedown possibilities in Angel, yet his followers--who never seem more than a bunch of confused amateur extras--are clearly indigent; in fact, we never get to see where or how they live.)

Not surprisingly, Bedelia regards Mancuso as a charlatan, but to her astonishment she soon realizes that he is sincere, even if he's not above rigging his life-size Jesus Crucified to bleed for his followers at just the right psychological moment. In short, Mancuso represents simple faith threatening the apparent rationality of Bedelia--"apparent" because we never really get to know her religious beliefs beyond her understandable skepticism of Mancuso.

It's not that we don't believe in Bedelia and Mancuso, accomplished actors (in other films), but it's well nigh impossible to believe in anything that happens in this misbegotten mess. If anything, its sheer contrivance suggests that Popescu hasn't got all that much faith in his own material. Otherwise, why make Bedelia a priest, why load her character down with a crippled daughter? Why not make her an ordinary, intelligent woman challenged by Mancuso? Why the dubious thriller context?

But "Death of an Angel" goes wrong in ways small as well as big. We're asked to believe, for example, that Bedelia's friend and bishop isn't sympathetic to her request to take a leave to try to win her daughter back. And why, at some point, doesn't Bedelia at least consider calling the cops or even consulting her attorney? And on and on.

It's amazing that Popescu, who collaborated on the script of Peter Weir's "The Last Wave," one of the most persuasive of spiritual, other-worldly films ever made, would direct such an allegorical work in such a straight-on fashion with all the style of a standard TV movie. It's even more amazing to know that "Death of an Angel" (rated PG, too intense for small children) is one of the first films developed by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute. 'DEATH OF AN ANGEL'

A 20th Century Fox release. Executive producers Dimitri Villard, Robby Wald, Charles J. Weber. Producer Peter Burrell. Writer-director Petru Popescu. Camera Fred Murphy. Co-producer Frank E. Hildebrand. Music Peter Myers. Production designer Linda Pearl. Associate producer Patrick Markey. Costumes Jack Buehler. Stunt coordinator Loren James. 2nd unit camera Oliver Wood. Film editor Christopher Lebenzon. With Bonnie Bedelia, Nick Mancuso, Pamela Ludwig, Alex Colon, Abel Franco, Irma Garcia, Michael Shannon.

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.)

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