There are the possession movies that are really about nothing more than possession. You know their type. They exist primarily for the late night crowds; they give the guys an excuse to make their dates scream by sneaking up on them and grabbing their shoulders. And then there are the movies that use possession not as a cheap horror gimmick, but as a means for a character or group of characters to come to terms with their faith. I grant you that neither category is anything close to original. But if they must be made, I would rather see more in the second category, mostly because they do a much better job in getting me to care about the characters and the situation they find themselves in. It’s not exploitation – a story is actually being told.
The Rite is a movie like that. It treads very familiar ground, but it goes about it well enough that it held my interest throughout. It’s a dramatized adaptation of the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, in which Rome-based journalist Matt Baglio recounts his period of research with Saratoga parish priest Father Gary Thomas, who was assigned to be an exorcist for the diocese. Initially skeptical of demonic possession claims, he was sent to Rome and became an apprentice for an established exorcist, a position that would ultimately give him cause to believe in the existence of evil. Baglio would personally observe Thomas performing over twenty exorcisms; Thomas would later visit the sets of The Rite and claim that, although licenses were taken, the exorcism scenes were by in large very accurate.
In the film, Thomas is reinterpreted as Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), a young mortician from Chicago who, ever since the death of his mother years earlier, has grappled with his faith. Disillusioned with his life and with his father (Rutger Hauer), and knowing he has no financial resources for college, he decides to earn a free degree by enrolling in a seminary school and abdicating his vows as soon as he’s finished. Four years later, after being ordained, he has every intention of resigning – but an incident gives Father Matthew (Toby Jones) reason to believe Michael’s true calling is to be a priest. He’s urged to travel to Rome and attend classes on exorcism at the Vatican. He has little choice but to accept; if he were to resign, he would suddenly be saddled with a $100,000 student loan.
In Rome, Michael’s skepticism leads to the introduction of Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), an exorcist known for his somewhat unorthodox methods. He believes in the Devil, and experience has taught him to be more direct when it comes to people like Michael – people who are gutsy enough to say, “It becomes complicated when no proof of the Devil suddenly becomes proof of the Devil.” He cannot philosophize to Michael; he can only present him with the facts, which are indisputable. A local girl, who’s sixteen and pregnant, has been seeing Father Lucas for some time, for she and her aunt believe she’s possessed; while Michael can make the case that she’s internalizing abuse at the hands of her father, that doesn’t explain the spontaneous vomiting of iron spikes or her shifting demonic voice, which she uses to say things only Michael would understand.
We eventually meet an Italian reporter named Angeline (Alice Braga), whose assignment on exorcisms will hopefully benefit from Michael’s insider’s perspective. In a lesser film, she and Michael would be romantically involved; here, we see a woman who’s interested in Michael for his mind and his history. She isn’t completely free from contrivances, though. She too has been wrestling with issues that have tested her faith, and they will factor into the final exorcism scene. This is itself a cliché, and while I recognize that a certain degree of conventionalism is to be expected, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if a different approach were taken. Someone should try it someday.
The central conflict between faith and rationality builds to a development that the ad campaign has unfortunately spoiled. I will not play along, for it’s certainly possible you managed to avoid it. I will say that the film is suspenseful, engaging, and wonderfully shot, with Ben Davis’ cinematography creating an atmosphere that rival most horror movies. The performances are also decent; Hopkins is surprisingly compelling, in large part because he goes against convention and keeps his character relatively grounded. The Rite was directed by Mikael Håfström, whose previous film, the highly effective 1408, was also about a man coming to terms with the unexplainable. His new movie isn’t as consistently frightening, but then again, that really wasn’t the point. He’s tackling a subject that for some people is real, and his approach is both entertaining and respectful.
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