MOVIE REVIEWS : MORAL ISSUES AND MURDER : ‘The Rosary Murders’ an Engrossing Mystery Within Complex World

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Times Staff Writer

“The Rosary Murders” (selected theaters) is an engrossing mystery that illuminates a complex and special world while steadily building suspense. It is most persuasive in its depiction of the everyday workings of the American Roman Catholic Church, and considering the imminent papal visit, its arrival couldn’t be more timely.

Adapted by director Fred Walton and celebrated crime novelist Elmore Leonard from William Kienzle’s novel, “The Rosary Murders” is everything “Agnes of God” isn’t. For once we’re spared long-winded ecclesiastical debates and endless wranglings over the conflict between the spirit and the flesh. The Catholic Church of this film emerges as a very human institution and therefore, is involving rather than repelling for non-Catholics. Indeed, there’s a certain irony in the realization that one of the most convincing and detailed portraits of modern-day Catholicism emerges in a murder mystery.

The beginning of Easter Week in bleak inner-city Detroit marks the start of a terrifying and perplexing series of murders of priests and nuns, each of whom is found clutching identical rosaries. Midway through the week, the killer confesses to the Holy Redeemer’s Father Koesler (Donald Sutherland), yet says he is not through killing. The tormented, hate-filled man reveals enough to Koesler for the priest to ascertain the murderer’s identity fairly quickly, but how can Koesler break the sacred seal of the confessional? Koesler’s answer, which finds him turning detective, is likely to provoke healthy debate.


Koesler is a liberal, compassionate man prepared to defy his superior, Father Nabors (Charles Durning), and baptize an illegitimate child, but he is not prepared to betray the confessional, reminded that to do so would be to destroy the church. Koesler’s dilemma illustrates the larger challenge of the church to reconcile ancient doctrines to the needs of its people in today’s world. The film makers, who take a tragic rather than an easily critical view, suggest that anyone who allows his faith to become reflexive does so at peril. In contrast to the vital, engaged Koesler, the blunt, by-the-book Nabors has become so stale that Koesler can anticipate every word of his sermons. We may not agree with Koesler, but we can respect him; we may not respect Nabors, yet his gruff, often humorous heartiness, makes him likable.

“The Rosary Murders” is an instance of good writing matched by firm, understated direction and some splendid playing from a large cast. In contrast to Walton’s spine-tingling “When a Stranger Calls,” “The Rosary Murders” is low-key yet can jolt you out of your seat--even on a second viewing. Sutherland, his hair silvered and close-cropped, radiates intelligence in one of the most substantial, reflective roles of his career. No matter that Durning always seems perfect casting as a priest, for he’s so skillful that he makes each time seem the first.

The lovely Belinda Bauer is pivotal as a fledgling reporter whose digging reveals the first of the deaths was in fact a murder. (We can believe that she loses the story to a more experienced--and male --reporter, but having shown such enterprise, why would her editor lay her off?)

Thankfully, the film makers avoid the cliche of a romance between Koesler and the reporter and instead reveal that her attraction to him develops into a renewal of her faith. Bauer hasn’t much screen time, but what she has she puts to excellent use.

Josef Sommer is a smart, seasoned police detective who suspects Koesler knows more than he is revealing, and James Murtaugh elicits fear and pity as the compulsive killer.

Cinematographer David Golia brings a warm, natural glow to the film’s authentic, mainly dark and venerable settings. Because “The Rosary Murders” (rated R for violence and adult themes) is such a satisfying film, it’s a shame the end is marred by a sappy title song that serves only to detract from the complexity of emotions Bauer has so beautifully expressed in its final moments. You’re better off not bothering to listen to it.

‘THE ROSARY MURDERS’ A New Line Cinema release of a Robert G. Laurel-First Take production. Executive producers Laurel, Michael R. Mihalich. Director Fred Walton. Screenplay Elmore Leonard, Walton; from the novel by William X. Kienzle. Camera David Golia. Music scored by Bobby Laurel, Don Sebesky. Costumes Judy Dolan. Visual consultant Stewart Campbell. Film editor Sam Vitale. With Donald Sutherland, Charles Durning, Belinda Bauer, Josef Sommer, James Murtaugh, John Danelle, Addison Powell, Kathleen Tolan, Tom Mardirosian, Anita Barone, Leila Danette, Anna Minot, Lupe Ontiveras.


Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (Younger than 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.)