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Hello, Mother, Hello, Fado: Sofia Milos delivers a torch song Portuguese style in 'Passionada.'

Best Fishes

A Portuguese widow meets a recovering English cad over a seafood feast in 'Passionada'

By Richard von Busack

THE FADO is sung maybe best by Portuguese musical legend Amália Rodrigues, who seems to be some lost Lusitanian sister of Patsy Cline. This downbeat music envelops the offbeat romance Passionada. The story follows the blooming love affair between a rigidly principled widow from the Azores Islands, Celia (Sofia Milos, a dark, commanding woman on the lines of Cher), who has just completed her mandated seven years of mourning. She's being persistently courted by a professional card counter named Charles (Jason Isaacs, breaking out of the perfidious-Albion mode he's been living off of lately).

The movie itself courts you with views of the coast near the Portuguese-American settlement at New Bedford, Mass., in midsummer. (Melville fans who haven't got out there will want to see what the place looks like.) Much of Passionada takes place at a lovely place with an ugly name, Buzzard's Bay. The screen gets filled with its share of Portuguese food porn. Unlike a lot of these Sundance-ethnic romances, Passionada has the sense to counterpoint the sweetness with a pair of cranky best friends (Seymour Cassel and Theresa Russell).

On vacation visiting his two crooked old pals, Charles goes to a local seafood restaurant where Celia is performing. Captivated with her fado singing, he becomes a stage-door Johnnie, immune to the brushoff she tries to give him. At a local casino, Charles encounters Celia's daughter, Vicky (Emily Rossum), a slightly wild (and wildly wild by the standards of her mother) girl who longs to learn how to count cards at the local casino. If Charles teaches Vicky how he operates, she promises to set him up with her mom. Figuring that he doesn't have a chance with this upright widow if he tells her he's a card sharp, Charlie poses as a seafood magnate, a millionaire who's planning to open a fish-processing plant in New Bedford.

As directed by Dan Ireland--who made The Whole Wide World, Renée Zellweger's first important movie--Passionada saddles the romance seeker with having to find the "emotional truth" in the story, which generally means trying to overlook a weak plot. I think that directors who love old movies--and it's clear Ireland is one--tend to mix up what an audience used to put up with vs. what an audience used to like. Holding disbelief back is an effort sometimes. Milos looks right in the spotlight, lip-syncing those tragic songs. But she's slightly stiff in the part, and oddly it's the usually reserved Isaacs who's the warmer party. Rossum, too, acts rings around Milos; she's a rising star, unrecognizable here from her very different performance as an Appalachian gal in Songcatcher. Despite the turgid films she's been sunk in lately, Theresa Russell is surprisingly crisp, horsing around with a neat little martini kit or dismissing the fado as "cabaret." Resigned to older-woman parts, she's still able to don a look of false girlish innocence that's like the look a dog gives you to express its worry that you might drop an ice cream cone.

Passionada (PG-13; 108 min.), directed by Dan Ireland, written by Jim and Steve Jermanok, photographed by Claudio Rocha and starring Sofia Milos, Jason Isaacs and Theresa Russell, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the August 14-20, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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