Noëlle **1/2

(out of four stars)

Written and directed by and starring David Wall. With Sean Patrick Brennan, Kerry Brennan. Distributed by Gener8Xion Entertainment. 1 hour, 30 mins.

PG

(thematic elements). Playing at area theaters.

We've come to expect the pious, the warm and the sentimental from recent films aimed at the Christian moviegoer. But that has typically made for bland cinema.

Noëlle

adds wit to the recipe. It's clever, well-acted and almost, but not quite, edgy.

This holiday film is set in a dying Catholic parish on Cape Cod and asks hard questions about abstinence, abortion, misuse of church funds, and alcohol abuse. It has Catholic priests' behaving badly.

No, not that badly.

And it dares to be funny.

Writer-director-star David Wall has dusted off that old "true meaning of the Christmas story" chestnut and pasted it on a holiday story of a crisis of faith for a Catholic Church "hit man" who visits fading parishes to deliver the bad news: They're shutting you down.

This time, the Rev. Keene has shown up at a Cape Cod church run by his old seminary pal, the Rev. Simeon Joyce (Sean Patrick Brennan). The congregation is dying out or drifting away, and Joyce is hitting the bottle.

The priests argue, and in a moment of charity, Keene suggests that they jazz up the Christmas creche - make the Nativity scene a live-action one this year.

Noëlle

's amusing bits come from the casting sessions, and its heart comes from efforts to talk local librarian Marjorie (Kerry Brennan) into playing the Virgin Mary.

Wall, who plays up his resemblance to a young Robert Redford, has filmed a visually striking and brisk holiday film that manages to be sweet yet light on the sugar at the same time.

- Roger Moore,
Orlando Sentinel