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Has No Spinning Heads or Pea Soup

Movie Review: The Rite (2011)
Summary: A young priest in training travels to Rome to study exorcism to contemplate his faith.
Spoilers:
none

 “I feel like I’ve been put through the ringer!” This was one response from someone at the same screening I attended, and it is a fiercely accurate summation of the viewing experience, I’d guess, of the whole audience.

The Rite is another movie said to be “inspired by true events,” being very loosely based on a book by author Matt Baglio entitled, “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist.” The name “Gary Thomas,” the renowned priest whose experiences the film draws from, has been replaced with “Michael Kovak.” The supporting details of the entire plot are fictional.

“Michael Kovak” (Colin O’Donoghue) is the son of funeral home owner and operator, “Istvan Kovak” (Rutger Hauer) who brought up his son in the family business. But young Michael, not satisfied, and seeking a new career and a way to pay for college, turns to a four-year-long seminary stint in priest training as an option, much to the disbelief of best friend, “Eddie” (Chris Marquette).

After finishing his training, Michael decides not to go through with his vows, believing he sought out the ministry as an escape from his own sense of emptiness and lacking sense of direction. But his resignation is put on hold when “Father Matthew” (Toby Jones) expresses his faith in him, agreeing to send him to Rome at the church’s expense to examine the rite of exorcism. While Michael considers it little more than a vacation, Father Matthew holds out hope that it will serve to pull Michael’s faith-struggling mind through its storm of doubt.

Michael arrives in Rome and begins the course. After heavily resisting with his ingrained skepticism the conventional and easily explained-away incidents of possessions in the teaching cirriculum of “Father Xavier” (Ciarán Hinds), he is referred to study under veteran exorcist, “Father Lucas Trevant” (Anthony Hopkins), an eccentric Welsh priest of the Jesuit Order with highly unconventional methods.

What makes The Rite a standout among movies on the subject of exorcism is its combination of the personalities of Kovak and Trevant. Here, the focus is not just sporting creepy theatrics in a saintly, historical setting, with unforeseen forces of evil making themselves known while all who see them tremble. The focus of The Rite is its reliance on the beginnings of dynamic debate on what constitutes proof of the divine. Notice I said, beginnings.

Rather than stagnating in the showing off of bizarre body contortions and hell-spawned screams from the bowels of Gehenna (though it has plenty of both), the film takes its time getting to where it wants to go, but never does it relinquish its sense of earnestness in doing a nearly decent job of making skeptics and atheists answer the question: “What evidence of the divine will truly be good enough for you?” It tries. We atheists give it credit for that. 

Both Trevant and Kovak are at-heart skeptics, and it is implied, have faced and do face the same struggles. But Trevant has had years to question his beliefs, to look at the evidence, and then to find the explaining away of proofs tiring and pointless. There’s always something inside, scratching away, tearing at us, forcing us to come back out and re-examine the evidence, says Trevant. It is that evidence that convinces him more than the super strength of a demon-possessed human being or nail-spitting (we atheists would prefer the latter for examination purposes, of course). Kovak hasn’t come that far, and he has yet to see what Trevant sees on a daily basis.

We godless atheists are in constant awe of how many “legitimate demon possessions” those who believe in seem to run into, but this film does at least try to have some respect for skepticism. As Trevant puts it when Kovak is underwhelmed with seeing his first exorcism: “What did you expect? Spinning heads and pea soup?”

Trevant welcomes his skeptical tagalong because he sees so much of himself in him, despite the fact that Kovak becomes immediately convinced that Trevant is an old fruitcake and that his “bag of tricks” involves allowing the gullible to remain gullible about their archaic religious views. Meanwhile, the “battle” between faith and reason rages on as the story unfolds—at least it does so as the director has determined it to.

And this is one of the lighter weaknesses of the film: audiences will not spend too much time wandering which side is winning! It’s not so much about making the audience think or decide for themselves what is real between natural verses supernatural, as it is about making the audience know that the conquering of good over evil is a certainty. This nails the lid shut on this film, confirming it as a fresh, theist-leaning romp in Supernaturalland. Religious audiences will appreciate that, but they’ll soon find that the movie’s last 25 minutes nearly ruins everything that was accomplished in the first hour. From there, its rambunctious theatrics and clumsy religious pandering makes it seem more like an over-dramatized play sponsored by a fundamentalist church rather than an objective comparison of skepticism and religion.

It is still sad to fault a movie when the performances of Hopkins and O’Donoghue measure so high, with an accompanying supporting performance of Alice Braga’s reporter and Kovak’s potential love interest, “Angeline Vargas.” These performances are well above par, but it is because of the efforts of Hopkins that The Rite can add in smidgens of humor like it does without ever detracting from the ominous feel of any given segment.

From start to finish, the build-up is near perfect. The lighting and atmosphere – set up with the right mixture of mood-setting images and background flashes that always move forward to what you need to see next – is spot on. Among exorcism films, The Rite should prove an especially worthy watch for all who subscribe to the belief in holy relics and the casting out of devils.

(JH)

Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images, and language, including sexual references)
Director: Mikael Håfström
Starring: Anthony Hopkins “Father Lucas Trevant,” Colin O’Donoghue “Michael Kovak,” Alice Braga “Angeline,” Ciarán Hinds “Father Xavier,” Toby Jones “Father Matthew,” Rutger Hauer “Istvan Kovak,” Marta Gastini “Rosaria,” Maria Grazia Cucinotta “Aunt Andria,” Chris Marquette “Eddie”
Genre: Drama / Horror / Thriller
Trailer

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