Blame it on the Jesuits. Were it not for the experiences of one of their own, whose exploits combating the possessed inspired the film The Exorcist, perhaps the Catholic Church would not find its presence in contemporary cinema relegated primarily to priests splashing around Holy water at head-spinning, projectile-vomiting teenage girls — the role of priest as demon slayer added to the pantheon of stock horror characters alongside the mad scientist, the teenage babysitter and the faceless slasher. Mikael Håfström’s The Rite is yet another entry in this ever expanding catalog of films reducing the Catholic Church into Grand Guignol spectacle, inspired as always by “true events” – in this case the book The Rite: The Making of A Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio. [Go here to read or listen to our interview with the subject of the book and movie, Fr. Gary Thomas.]
The Rite tells the story of apathetic seminarian Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), who is sent to the Vatican to take a course on exorcism. He winds up being taken under the wing of wizened Jesuit priest Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins) who gives him a hands-on education in the titular rite. Kovak is forced to confront his own disbelief in order to conquer the very real presence of evil that he encounters.
If the narrative sounds familiar, that is because it is; with few variances, it is essentially the same plot as The Exorcist. That is not necessarily a problem in and of itself, as the story of a faith tested and refined by fire is one that bears repeating, particularly by a film industry that has imposed more than its fair share of nihilism and despair on its audience.
What is a problem is that The Rite is not a particularly good film and the best aspect of it — the raising of questions about faith, evil and the devil himself — is put forth in a genre whose core audience is neither interested in nor equipped to answer those questions.
The makers of the film should be lauded for their ambition; there are several moments that are provocative and deeply poignant, as when Hopkins’ character, discussing his own struggles with faith, tells of “something digging and scraping deep inside me” which sustained him in his darkest hours. It is when the film attempts to transcend the horror genre by posing authentic questions of faith and evil that it truly crackles. Indeed, in the first two-thirds of the film this makes the rickety storytelling and O’Donoghue’s anemic performance tolerable.
The wheels begin to fall off with a plot twist that seems entirely unnecessary and completely unfulfilling from an audience perspective, turning what could have been an extremely flawed but intriguing attempt at intellectual horror into a highlight reel of the worst moments in bad horror movies.
He who must not be named
The questions the film raises are substantive for any person of faith, particularly as they relate to the problem of evil and its source, or more specifically the now seemingly taboo topic of the devil and demons. The enemy of our nature, as St. Ignatius referred to it, is just not spoken about these days in polite Catholic circles, least of all in mixed (read secular) company, and it would seem that most Catholics are about as comfortable discussing Lucifer as they are chatting about limbo and the Crusades.
Baudelaire maintained that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he does not exist,” and the state of contemporary culture would seem to corroborate his claim. The enemy of our nature seems to be a rather antiquated notion these days, the residue of a medieval Church mired in superstition, but is that in fact the case? Or is this rather, as the film suggests, a case of full-blown denial — along the lines of ignoring an alcoholic loved one’s symptoms in the belief that this will somehow make their alcoholism not true. As one of the possessed in the film states, “choosing not to believe will not protect you.”
Hopkins gives a fine performance creating a three-dimensional character out of one-dimensional writing. His commitment and intensity is spot on throughout and as would be expected he outclasses his co-stars, though he never appears to be trying to outshine them — an easy trap to fall into given his ability and the overripe potential of his character.
O’Donohue seems to have been plucked from the Jake Gyllenhaal school of big eyes and small skill, and offers little other than staying out of the way of Hopkins and Alice Braga (who fills out the requisite but ambiguously chaste romantic pairing.)
The Rite has its moments, to be sure. Unfortunately most of it is lost in an incredibly sloppy, and rudderless, third act. Any good will the first part of the film cultivates in its audience is exhausted by the end; which is a shame because there is the potential for something more. In the end, what does it in is the genre itself. The film is at its best when it insists that its audience reflect and consider, actively observe. Unfortunately the filmmakers are bound by the limitations of the horror genre and, while the film is many things, what it is not is a good horror film. As a director, Håfström has the finesse of a bulldog, with no aptitude for pacing and building suspense; everything winds up being telegraphed fifteen minutes in advance.
Deep within The Rite lays an intelligent, provocative film that asks serious question about the problem of evil; unfortunately it is wrapped in the brittle coil of a bad horror movie. If the film does nothing else it demonstrates the significant lack of films that raise questions of faith, sin and personal freedom outside of the postmodern vacuum.
Directed by Mikael Håfström
New Line Cinema / Warner Bros.
Opens January 28