Horror. Worldview. Faith.

The Rite – Review

The Rite – Review

Feb 8, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by Mikael Hafstrom, 2011
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Horror has always been the most schizophrenic of genres—at any given time both parochial and subversive.  This division is most obvious in the way horror films deal with religion, especially Christianity.  We are all well aware of the puritanical leanings of the average slasher film, with conservative values being reenforced and thinking and behavior outside the norms being punished, but equally prevalent are films that mock religious belief and present the representatives of organized religion as anything from buffoons to monsters.  Going into The Rite, I wasn’t sure which side of the hammer I was going to get pounded with, but I knew an assault was coming.  The Rite is about exorcism, and there are few film topics that highlight the religious vs. sacrilegious dichotomy of the horror genre better than exorcism, a practice that is divisive even within religious communities much less when mixed with the decidedly secular world of Hollywood.

The Rite is the story of a young, Catholic priest in training who has entered the seminary not because he has felt a particular calling but, instead, because it was what his father and late mother expected of him (though his father might have preferred he stay in the family’s mortuary business.  At the end of his years in seminary, Michael decides that he must decline the taking of vows.  The church isn’t inclined to let him go so easily.  Using the threat of commuting his scholarship to student loans (the most horrific concept in the film), his supervisor gets Michael to travel to Vatican City to be trained as an exorcist.  As a side note: nothing in Colin O’ Donoghue’s wooden performance suggests the kind of charisma or promise that everyone in the film senses in him which may be why every other character in the film feels the need to vocalize something along the lines of “I sense great potential in you.”

Up until the setting switches to Rome, it is hard to tell where Michael or the film stands.  He is having a crisis of faith, but it isn’t until we see him participating in the exorcism classes that we learn that he may be a full-blown skeptic.  He challenges the priest who teaches the seminar constantly, using rhetorical questions to suggest that there is no proof that demons are involved in the episodes that are being discussed, or that demons or even sin actually exist.  After a few such exchanges, he is sent to Father Trevant, an accomplished exorcist, in hopes that he will see things to re-affirm his faith.

What he sees isn’t enough to re-affirm our faith in Hollywood for sure.  Michael is brought in pretty quickly on an exorcism-in-progress involving a young pregnant woman.  As her story plays out, we are witness to scene after scene that are copies of similar scenes from better films (mostly The Exorcist, of course).  Does the demon knows something about the young priests past? Check.  Does the demon mock the priest? Check.  Does the demon attempt to use the body of the possessed to seduce or scandalize the priest? Check.  Head turning? Check.  Bones and ligaments popping? Check?  Speaking in Latin and other unknown to the victim languages? Check?  I could go on (and, boy, am I tempted to), but you get the point.

The only thing surprising about the film is how long it takes Michael to start believing in possession.  The young Italian girl quotes, in English, something his girlfriend has said to him the night he announced he was going to the seminary.  His explanation:  she’s probably listened to thousands of American rock songs.  This might explain her knowing some English words, but I’m not sure how it explains the stuff she actually said.  Of course, coming around to the belief that a person is possessed by an actual demon can’t be easy even for someone of great faith, much less someone whose faith is wavering.

Still, he comes around to it eventually, but not until he if forced to perform an exorcism on Father Trevant himself, now the host of the demon that once possessed the young pregnant girl.  The climatic exorcism isn’t bad;  it might even be good.  Certainly, the performance by Anthony Hopkins as Trevant is a cut above any other victim of possession in recent memory.  I’d actually have to go back to Jason Miller’s turn in The Exorcist III to think of a more effective performance.  Michael redeems himself in these scenes also, drawing on the faith instilled in him by his parents (and possibly the undeniable presence of the unholy) to get the demon to give up his name and, therefore, his power.

With the relative strength of its final scenes, The Rite ends up in a good place.  Unfortunately, getting there is a trip full of cliches, tropes, and over-used conventions.  A little originality in the way the possessions and exorcisms in the film are portrayed would have went a long way toward turning this into a film of some interest to horror fans in general and fans of religious horror films in particular.  Instead, I can’t recommend the film to any but the most diehard Anthony Hopkins fans.  His work here is worth a rental at the very least.

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3 comments

  1. sounds a little like the last exorcism. which was better?

  2. Jon, I think I am the only one of the crew who hasn’t seen The Last Exorcist, so I can’t compare. It is in my TBW stack, but that stack just keeps getting higher.

  3. Typo above, but I haven’t seen The Last Exorcism either.

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