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Non-Review Review: The Rite

The Rite has an interesting premise and a somewhat novel approach to its material within the first half. On the other hand, it seems to squander that potential with a disappointingly conventional second half, one falls prey to the clichés and conventions of exorcism movies that we’ve already seen replicated elsewhere countless times before. It starts out as an interesting exploration of religious faith, but it ends up feeling like a waste of some good ideas.

Don't cross him...

“You know the average age of a nun these days?” a religious instructor asks at one point, before answering his own question. “Sixty-nine.” I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that this is a time of great difficulty for the Catholic Church, at least in the First World, with church attendance dropping and the numbers of priests and nuns in rapid decline. The institution is under siege, rocked by allegations of corruption and cover-ups in the wake of abuse revelations. In its opening act, it seems like The Rite is going to broach that crisis of faith, and dare to explore the role of the Catholic Church in modern society.

We are introduced to Michael Kovak, the son of a mortician who renounced his father’s faith following the death of his mother. Free-loading off the Church as a means of escaping his father, Michael ships himself off to a seminary. Naturally, he doesn’t fit in properly, but eventually finds himself in Rome studying exorcism, and teamed up with an old Welsh priest, Father Lucas Trevent. Kovak begins a journey to faith through doubt, as he’s initially skeptical of the practice of exorcism, and quick to label those undergoing exorcisms as in need of serious medical care.

Rite of way...

It’s an interesting set-up, and I can’t help but feel that the movie makes a mistake classifying itself as a horror. After meeting his first possessed victim, Michael is a bit surprised by what he encounters. “What did you expect?” Father Lucas asks, mocking the young trainee. “Spinning heads and pea-soup?” It would be interesting to see an exorcism movie that didn’t resort to unnatural bodily contortions, synthesised voices or other cheap horror conventions, and the movie seems to acknowledge that there’s a world of difference between The Exorcist and real exorcisms.

On the other hand, the movie can’t seem to resist the temptation, and it’s not too long before figures are contorting in impossible ways and demonic possession represents itself through a variety of completely undeniable external signs. There’s never a moment of doubt in The Rite, there’s never a moment where Michael could legitimately attempt to categorise what is occurring as a purely secular phenomenon, like a psychotic break or a mental illness. Even though a few characters might share a few symptoms with mental illness, Michael can’t rationalise most of the occurrences without seeming wilfully blind. While muscle spasms might explain contortions, the possessed seem to have supernatural knowledge that can’t be dismissed so flippantly.

He's a devil, that one...

And that encapsulates the problem with the way the movie addresses its material. The story sets itself as Michael’s journey back to faith, but the essential element of faith is that it can’t be proven. After all, if you put any agnostic through what Michael goes through, he’d probably come out the other end believing in something. The personal drama that provided an interesting hook evaporates almost immediately. So the movie sidesteps its central interesting issue, opting for an easy answer. And, in the moment that it does that, it becomes a much more boring film.

Because, to be frank, director Mikael Håfström isn’t the strongest horror director working. The exorcism scenes aren’t unsettling or unnerving in the slightest. Although he may avoid the more obvious theatrics of The Devil Inside or The Last Exorcism, he can’t find a more potent substitute. Anthony Hopkins tries to provide some sense of dramatic weight during those exorcism sequences, but Håfström can’t quite harness the sinister character actor to the best of his abilities.

"We're going to need a bigger cross..."

Even the ethereal dream sequences don’t seem quite overwhelmingly macabre enough, with demonic interference seeming almost banal. That said, Håfström does deserve credit for foreshadowing the demon’s identity by surrounding the characters with the creatures traditionally associated with the demon in question. It’s a nice touch, and a sign that Håfström and their crew have done their research.

While Anthony Hopkins is reasonably effective in the role of a veteran exorcist, Colin O’Donoghue struggles a bit as Michael Kovak. We never really get any sense of depth to the character. While some of that is undoubtedly down to script problems, O’Donoghue can’t breathe any life into the young student. He is always overpowered by the cast around him, and never manages to find his footing – it isn’t just with Anthony Hopkins, but also with Ciaran Hinds or Toby Jones or Alice Braga. I don’t know that a stronger actor would have improved the movie to a massive degree, but I think another performer might have made Michael’s journey a bit more interesting.

A close shave?

There is a classic exorcism movie still waiting to be made, and several recent horrors have dared to suggest some absolutely fascinating pieces of information about the processes within the Catholic Church. Indeed, watching all these films, I can’t help but feel like a solid character drama involving an exorcist might make for a more compelling and fascinating film than yet another shallow attempt at shock horror.

4 Responses

  1. I found this one rather disappointing as well. I was keen to see it because of Anthony Hopkins’ involvement. He’s a great actor, but he can’t perform miracles and it would take one to make me watch this again.

    There are a lot of exorcism films about, but as far as I’m concerned none of them are in the same league as The Exorcist.

    • I’m going to be controversial and admit that I respect the Exorcist, but I don’t really like it in the way I like other classic horrors like The Shining or Rosemary’s Baby. I think it might have to do with the fact that it was banned in Ireland for so long that it just became ridiculously hyped by the time it was eventually released. (“It’s so scary it was banned…”) Of course, it’s a deftly constructed film, but I just felt sort of let down by it, almost.

      • If I had the choice of watching The Exorcist or The Shining I would watch The Shining every time (‘Here’s Johnny!). I can think of any number of horror films that are better than The Exorcist, but none of them are about exorcisms so I still think of that as the definitive exorcism film.

      • Thanks Steve. I must watch it again. All the exorcism films of late had me thinking about it again.

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