The Rite

About a quarter of the way into The Rite, a veteran exorcist chides a twentysomething seminarian for not being especially impressed with the symptoms of a teenage girl believed to be possessed by a demon, asking, “What did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?” At that moment, director Mikael Hafstrom has acknowledged the elephant in the room for all...read more

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Reviewed by Mark Deming
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About a quarter of the way into The Rite, a veteran exorcist chides a twentysomething seminarian for not being especially impressed with the symptoms of a teenage girl believed to be possessed by a demon, asking, “What did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?” At that moment, director Mikael Hafstrom has acknowledged the elephant in the room for all demonic possession movies -- William Friedkin started the game with The Exorcist in 1973, and no one has topped him yet, or even matched him for sheer unnerving tension. The best most directors can manage is to make it into the same ballpark without looking silly, and hard as he tries, Hafstrom falls short of the goal, though he doesn’t get much help from his cast or screenwriter.

The Rite stars Colin O’Donoghue, best known for his work on the cable series The Tudors, as Michael Kovak, a young man who works beside his father (Rutger Hauer) in the family’s funeral parlor in Minnesota. Michael’s mother died when he was young, he has a chilly relationship with his dad, and he doesn’t want to work with dead people all his life; as Michael explains to his friend, in his family he has two choices -- he can become an undertaker or a priest, so he signs up for the seminary as a way of striking out on his own. However, Michael is not a man of faith, and after completing his studies he wants to move on before taking his final vows. Despite this, his mentor, Father Matthew (Toby Jones), sees great potential in Michael, and urges him to attend a course in Rome, where the Vatican is training priests to become exorcists. Michael is convinced that that mental illness, not demonic possession, is the cause of the upswing in exorcisms. In hopes of changing his mind, the Church assigns Michael to help out Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), an elderly Welsh-born priest living in Rome who has a busy schedule casting out demons among the citizenry. As Michael assists the eccentric Father Lucas as he tries to lure the demons out of a 16-year-old girl who was raped by her father and a young boy whose body is covered with bruises, he’s quietly appalled at what he sees as Father Lucas’ unwillingness to explore all options in helping his clients. But as Michael and Father Lucas banter back and forth on the issues of faith, God and Satan, Michael finds that he can’t explain everything, and as his father falls ill and the older priest begins exhibiting some very strange behavior, he has to decide just where he stands on the border of belief and skepticism.

While Anthony Hopkins gets top billing and the showiest role in The Rite, Colin O’Donoghue has the most screen time and holds the film together as Michael, and he doesn’t fare well in his first big-screen leading role. As the principled and rational doubter, O’Donoghue’s main function is to look soulful and concerned as he carries his considerable angst with him wherever he goes. The role wouldn’t have been a hail of fireworks in anyone’s hands, but O’Donoghue’s understated and underwhelming performance barely gives Michael a chance. On the other end of the scale, Hopkins eagerly overplays his hand as Father Lucas, highlighting each of the character’s many quirks (he’s the first exorcist in screen history to take a call on his cell phone while casting out the devil) and playing his battle with evil with as much teeth-gnashing intensity as he can muster. Hopkins bends Father Lucas into another of the spooky-guy roles that have become a highly profitable niche for him, and for all his brio the character doesn’t feel the least bit realistic, a serious flaw in a film that hinges on belief. And Alice Braga tries hard as Angeline, a reporter doing a story on exorcists, but the script lets her down; she has perhaps the most thankless role in screen history, playing the romantic interest for a man who has taken a vow of celibacy.

Screenwriter Michael Petroni throws far too many red herrings into the story and spends too much time muddying the waters of Father Lucas’s intentions, especially since the film turns into a clear-cut good-vs.-evil saga in the last act -- a considerable change of tone for the story. (While The Rite purports to be “inspired by true events,” the credits also note the movie was “suggested by” Matt Baglio’s nonfiction book about modern-day exorcists, meaning that Petroni has cherry-picked what he wanted from Baglio’s work and welded it to a piece of fiction.) And director Mikael Hafstrom’s efforts to wring shocks from this material are often at war with his cool, studied visual style and contemplative pacing. In his hands, The Rite looks polished and professional but feels hollow and insincere, and the occasional blunt shocks thrown into the mix feel like parlor tricks rather than any integral part of the story, especially as the wary attitude about Catholicism turns into passionate belief in the last act. Hafstrom’s fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman knew something about the balance of faith and doubt and how to make it mean something in the context of a story. Expecting The Rite to play like Winter Light would have been foolish, but one might have hoped that this film could at least deal reasonably with faith, since it’s not much to write home about as a thriller.

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  • Released: 2011
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Review: About a quarter of the way into The Rite, a veteran exorcist chides a twentysomething seminarian for not being especially impressed with the symptoms of a teenage girl believed to be possessed by a demon, asking, “What did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea s… (more)

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