A film review by Craig J. Koban May 26, 2011
2011, PG-13, 116 mins.
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
RITE is not at all as advertised.
I was expecting a rather cheap and sensationalistic religious horror film high on visceral gore and
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
THE RITE was pre-packaged as a fright and gore bonanza, but it’s
far more refreshingly subdued and nuanced than that.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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
Gotta admit, that one is a bit tricky to rationalize.
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.