Film Review: “The Rite”

by Jason LeRoy on January 28, 2011

Anthony Hopkins, Colin O'Donoghue, and Marta Gastini in THE RITE

starring: Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Rutger Hauer, Marta Gastini

directed by: Mikael Håfström

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images, and language including sexual references.

Despite their often disturbing depictions of demons and evil, exorcism films are by their very nature quite religious – specifically, Catholic. By depicting spiritual realms of good and evil and bestowing religious significance upon those realms – demons being agents of Satan which can only be defeated by a priest calling upon the name of Jesus – the entire genre can’t help but seem evangelical at its core.

And while many exorcism films over the years have focused on the horror-movie thrills of the exorcism itself while marginalizing the religious element, The Rite is clearly determined to buck that trend. Transparent in its utter faith and reverence, it is thinly veiled Catholic propaganda. This would be forgivable if the film itself packed more thrills, especially with recent films like The Last Exorcism setting the bar so high, but The Rite seems content in its polite mediocrity.

Michael Kovak (played by the dreamy Colin O’Donoghue, a smoldering mix of Matt Bomer and Michael Fassbender, as the kind of hottie priest that makes me wish I was a 10-year-old altar boy in short-shorts) is a young man at a crossroads. He could continue as a mortician, like his father (Rutger Hauer), or he could become a priest like the other men in his family. These are grim (and very Irish) options, to say the least.

And for the film’s first act, it maintains a deep, achingly solemn tone. In its jarring opening scene, we see Michael preparing a corpse’s face for its funeral viewing (which never gets any easier to watch, no matter how many episodes of Six Feet Under you’ve seen). A bit later, we see him movingly perform the last rites over a young bicyclist who has just been tragically struck down in a rainy car accident. The tone is consistently heavy and sad.

But then, after Michael (who has now joined a seminary and nearly completed his program) decides he is not meant to be a priest, one of his professors (Toby Jones) convinces him to postpone his decision until he travels to the Vatican and studies the ritual of exorcism under the tutelage of Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds). “Two months in Rome,” the professor says. “How bad could it be?” Which is actually the second time in the first act that a character stupidly wonders how much worse something could be.

So Michael dutifully relocates to Rome and begins attending Father Xavier’s exorcism class, even though he has become a skeptic who isn’t sure he even believes in God anymore, much less demonic possession. Michael thinks there is usually a scientific or psychological explanation for so-called “possessions.” The fool! Doesn’t he know he’s committing one of the foremost cardinal sins in any supernatural horror film? He bonds with a journalist (Alice Braga) who is taking the class for a story she’s writing, and they set off trying to make sense of this phenomenon. Needless to say, this film has a lesson or two to teach them about their disbelief.

After learning of his skepticism, Father Xavier puts Michael in touch with Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), a practicing exorcist who lives in an old dilapidated house nearby. Father Lucas takes Michael under his wing, bringing him along while he performs a series of exorcisms on Rosaria (Marta Gastini), a pregnant teen from the village. Michael is positively aghast at Father Lucas’ allegedly “unorthodox” methods, but aside from hilariously answering his cellphone mid-exorcism, there’s nothing that weird about it. I mean come on, we’re talking about exorcisms here. “Unorthodox” is kinda relative.

So, for its second act, the film becomes a mild-mannered student-teacher comedy of manners, with Michael scrambling along after Father Lucas while he bustles around casually casting out demons that inevitably sound like Lisa Lampanelli. And while this section of the film is fairly bland and benign, it is at least much less embarrassing than the deliriously schlocky and predictable finale, which finds Hopkins using a voice and mannerisms he hasn’t deployed since Hannibal Lecter, but to much lesser effect. The Rite starts off strong, loses steam in the second act, and becomes a full-blown howler by its finish.

There is little to discuss about the acting. Hopkins is in scenery-chewing mode here, but despite his towering presence over the other actors, you ultimately just feel embarrassed for him. The Irish-born O’Donoghue, making his U.S. leading role debut, certainly has the brooding looks required by this role, but is a less-than-forceful screen presence. Alice Braga, an actress of uncommon intensity, deserves better than this. Veteran character actors Hauer, Hinds, and Jones are all wasted in throwaway roles. But as the tormented Rosaria, Marta Gastini certainly serves up the demonically possessed goods.

The Rite is competently made, and occasionally evokes moments of light menace and creepiness, but aside from that, has little to commend it. There is nothing scary, startling, or new about it. it is possibly the safest and most cuddly exorcism movie ever made. And while it is somewhat refreshing to see a movie about the Catholic church where corruption and molestation are never mentioned, its allegiance is perhaps a bit too blind. The Rite is to the Vatican what Fox News is to the GOP.

RIYL: inspirational/faith films, the Catholic church, family-friendly exorcism movies

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