A film review by Craig J. Koban May 26, 2011


2011, PG-13, 116 mins.


Fr. Trevant: Anthony Hopkins / Fr. Kovak: Colin O'Donoghue / Angeline: Alice Braga / Fr. Xavier: Ciaran Hinds / Fr. Matthew: Toby Jones / Istvan Kovak: Rutger Hauer

Directed by Mikael Hafstrom / Written by Michael Petroni, based on the book by Matt Baglio

THE RITE is not at all as advertised.  I was expecting a rather cheap and sensationalistic religious horror film high on visceral gore and demonic mayhem.  What I got was something altogether quieter, more patiently rendered, and more contemplatively themed.  THE RITE is less about the more obligatory and expected accoutrements of these types of exorcism films and instead opts for telling a fairly involving and recurrently fascinating portrait of a young, hesitant, and cynical priest-in-training that struggles with his very faith.  THE RITE was pre-packaged as a fright and gore bonanza, but it’s far more refreshingly subdued and nuanced than that. 

Directed by Swedish filmmaker and writer Mikael Hafstrom, THE RITE is based on the 2009 book THE RITE: THE MAKING OF A MODERN EXORCIST by Matt Baglio, who also co-authored the film’s screenplay.  To research the book, Baglio participated in a seminar on exorcism by the Vatican sponsored Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum.  He met Father Gary Thomas while there, a parish priest that was once tasked by a local bishop in California to become an exorcist.  Initially a non-believer of demonic possession and the power of the exorcists themselves, Father Gary nonetheless became a staunch man of faith when the evidence began to pile up all around him, especially when partnered with a Rome-based exorcist that began to open his eyes up to the real evil that took over innocent peoples’ souls. 

THE RITE is “inspired” by the book and the its referenced true events and I believe that the term inspired does the film justice. At the very least, the film’s opening third does provide for a compelling introduction to the central conundrum of its main character, Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) who decides to abandon his job as an undertaker and chooses to enter the priesthood as a means of perhaps avoiding a life of dealing with the dead.  The Father-wanna-be is by no means squeaky clean: he essentially enters the seminary as a means of getting a four year education before making his vows, during which time he plans to leave school because he can’t bring himself to submit to a lifetime of servitude to God.  His faith has all but left him. 

Michael's school mentor, Father Matthew (Toby Jones) does not admonish him for his choice to leave school, but he rather surprisingly reminds him that the cost of his education would roll into a $100,000 student loan, which makes Michael all the more uneasy.  Father Matthew then decides that Michael would be very good for a special program in Italy under the tutelage of Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds).  Xavier teaches in his class about demonic possession and the act of exorcism, but Michael remains a hard-nosed sceptic: he simply does not buy into either God or the Devil or the notion that Satin infects the minds and bodies of people on a daily basis.  He especially does not believe that certain priests are able to draw out the devil from these poor souls either. 

Realizing that he is losing the faith of one potentially gifted student, Xavier decides that what Michael needs is to mentor under Master Exorcist Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), who essentially serves to be a Miyagi-like sage to the ever doubting Michael.  They both work together on one possession case involving a young pregnant Italian teenager, and a subject with child makes the act of expunging the demon all the more trickier.  Of course, there’s a predictable level of give and take between the strident believer and the borderline atheist student, and Michael definitely has a case towards doubt when it’s revealed that not all of Father Lucas’ methods are as transcending as there appear.  Yet, as more time is spent with the victim and more difficult-to-explain evidence comes to the forefront, Michael is dealt with trying to come to grips with his nagging cynicism and the fact that it does appear that the work of the devil is at play within the girl. 

The poster and trailers of THE RITE heavily focused on Hopkins’ participation, but it should be emphasized that the film is largely the story of Michael’s struggles with his religion and scholastic career, not to mention that it poses several intriguing rationales as to why he joined the seminary in the first place.  His father (played by the icy cold and effective Rutger Hauer) was a less-than-inviting and nurturing paternal presence, and the death of Michael’s mother left many emotional wounds in him.  All of these back story ingredients add to the texture of Michael’s main story arc of his attempts to rationalize the often impossible aspects of demonic possession.  This all homogenizes together to give the narrative a sense of momentum: Will Michael give in to his priestly vows and become a believer or will he just continue to be a stone cold pragmatist?   

Unlike, say, the original EXORCIST, THE RITE deals with so many of the nagging questions that most agnostics have regarding exorcism and demon possession, and Michael acts as a sort of gateway persona for the audience.  The script is smart and perceptive in this regard for how he matter-of-factly asks all of the questions many of us have, like what about a victim's potential history of mental illness, or chemical imbalances, or physical aliments, or psychiatric assessments?  Many of these are, indeed, valid, but there are things that just can’t be explained, like how a teenage Italian girl can – while possessed – speak languages fluently she’s never been exposed to.  Moreover, how does she contort her body in such inhuman postures?   Then there are other aspects, like spitting up multiple spikes at will.  Gotta admit, that one is a bit tricky to rationalize. 

All of the performances are solid and contribute to the film’s dramatic interest.  O’Donoghue has been criticized as being a bit too brooding and lacking charm, but his performance is supposed to be about underplaying his sad melancholy and personal uncertainties.  Ciaran Hinds always brings a level of sternly penetrating gravitas to any of his roles, and his small, but crucial part here is no different.  Toby Jones evokes an effective aura of ironic detachment to the priest he plays.  And then there is Hopkins that plays the very tricky role of the film’s chief exorcist know-it-all.  The easy route for him would have been to lazily play the aging devil fighter with an over-the-top zeal and cartoonish simplification, but Hopkins finds a nice emotional pitch to anchor in throughout the film.  What’s captivating is that he often has a self-referential level of wit about himself and his vocation, even though he deeply believes in his cause and the powers of the devil. 

Shot mostly in Hungary and Italy with brief detours in Chicago, Hafstrom and his cinematographer Ben Davis (STARDUST and KICK-ASS) give THE RITE a strong and stirring sensation of the rugged and beautiful lived-in feel of the respective European locals, as well as envisioning the Vatican as a constant presence shadowing all in the film.  THE RITE, despite its invigorating themes, uniformly decent performances, and stellar aesthetic look, does make some missteps, like with a hastily added on character of a reporter (played by the lovely Alice Braga) that’s too underwritten for her own good.  The final act of the film, which gets too incredulously batty and seems to take forever to get to a tidy resolution, does not balance well with the enthralling opening passages.  Yet, THE RITE emerges as a modest revelation, especially considering the genre itself and the typical lackluster legacy of the January film release schedule.  It’s not really horror at all, but more of a religious drama of an inquisitive and troubled young man trying to understand and explain the horror he sees before him.

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