Review: The Rite

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When WIlliam Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” was unleashed on the world in 1973, a kind of mass-hysteria ensued. A public desperate to believe in something flocked to theaters and then promptly fainted or ran out. Ushers were given smelling salts to nurse unconscious audience members. People wept openly in terror, gripped by religious mania. This was the magic of cinema at its finest, festering itself in the minds of people long after they left the theater. It spawned countless knockoffs in multiple countries. Today it remains the exorcism movie by which all others (and indeed, horror pictures of any other sub-genre) are judged. When one sets out to broach the subject, they better make sure to do it right.

Last year producer Eli Roth gave us “The Last Exorcism,” the obligatory blending of the “found footage” and exorcism sub-genres. It was a film with a good premise and botched execution. Its lackluster presentation reminded everyone just how good “The Exorcist” really was. But 2011 brings a brand new offering in the form of “The Rite”. The picture is directed by Mikael Hafstrom, wo previously adapted Stephen King’s “1408″.

Colin O’Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, a young man who enters the priesthood to avoid taking over the family business of embalming. He doesn’t know what he believes, but knows he wants to get away. Once in Seminary school, Father Matthew (Toby Jones) convinces him to try a two-month stint in Rome learning the art of exorcism. Once there, he starts a tutelage under the wings of Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), an old Jesuit priest who had performed more exorcisms than anyone.

Trevant lives alone outside of Rome with a number of cats, and is given to fits of doubt himself. “Some days I don’t know whether I believe in God or Santa Claus or Tinkerbell,” Trevant tells Kovak. But he says that something deep inside him drives him to keep going. And so he does, ridding a number of patients of their spiritual ills over a drawn out period. At first Michael is skeptical. Slowly he begins to question that questioning. Along the way he meets Angelina (Alice Braga), a journalist doing a story on exorcism and looking for “the truth” of the matter. I should hope that her writing isn’t as thin as her character.

If “The Exorcist” rested on the shoulders of a few key players, “The Rite” rests only on one. Luckily, Sir Anthony Hopkins has a very strong set of shoulders.Though notably older, the actor hasn’t slowed down a bit. He gives Trevant the subtle touch he brings to each of is characters. It’s often difficult to read what lies behind those eyes. There’s always something stirring right underneath the surface, and we’re never quite sure whether it’s wisdom or madness. In the cas of Kovak, things are more clear. Or maybe they aren’t clear. But they’re definitely not as interesting.

Everyone here seems to be looking for the truth. Angeline ends up being the weakest and most unnecessary player, having no real stake in this game besides her article. For Kovak, the battle will determine his path in life. For Trevant, it will determine the eternal fate of his soul.

There’s certainly nothing new about the concept of a man of god going through a crisis of faith. But what “The Rite” lacks in story it makes up for in atmosphere, filling the screen with the gorgeously dark undertone of Vatican architecture. The dressing is meticulously laid, and I often found myself wanting to see more of what’s around the corner. There are also one or two genuinely scary moments (mixed in amongst the standard “jump scare” fare). And those who balk at my suggestion of there being one or two scary moments mustn’t forget that most horror films have none at all.

There’s a section of the film dedicated to Kovak’s mortician father and the death of his mother. It contains symbolism that is eventually recalled in other sequences, the intentions of which are never quite clear. These moments are nice to watch. They’re poignant and I’d like to know what they mean…but I don’t. Or perhaps they don’t mean anything. This is particularly resonant considering this is a picture about religion.

“The Rite” is not “The Exorcist,” but during the course of it I didn’t find myself longing for little Regan or Father Merrin or pea soup (although a “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” wouldn’t have hurt anything). This film is stands on its own, and overcomes the boundaries set by its PG-13 rating. It’s more of a drama than a horror picture. And unlike “The Last Exorcism,” the film appreciates the weight of the rich theological traditions its material broaches.

Like a biblical parable, the majority of the picture is straight forward. It’s up to you to interpret what it means to you. The ambiguity can be a blessing or a curse, depending on what you make of it. Nevertheless, there’s enough grace here to make it an enjoyable film, divine or not.

*The IMDB message board for this film has fast evolved into a flame war between atheists who say the film is bad because the concept of possession is silly and theists who say the atheists are fools who don’t grasp the complexities of the divine rites. This is sad and unnecessary. One doesn’t have to believe in gigantic alien robots to enjoy “The Iron Giant.” Exorcism is no different.


Written by Ryan

February 6th, 2011 at 12:25 am

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