Published: February 2, 2011
Directed by Mikael Håfström
The Rite is as much about having faith in an audience as it is about religious faith. Smothered underneath what is ultimately cheap horror blah is a thoughtful consideration of skepticism and religion. It’s hard to know exactly where that comparatively intelligent movie gets sold out for stock scares, but it’s right around the time people’s facial veins start turning black and Anthony Hopkins, as unconventional exorcist Father Lucas, is finally given the go-ahead to flip into super-Hannibal crazy-mode. And in a hot second that first film is forgotten, and “faith” becomes a matter of personal survival and saving the pretty girl rather than one of personal inquiry.
This is one of those movies that takes on that very loosest reality qualifier, “based on true events”—which doesn’t mean it is true or necessarily all that close to true. The main subject, the real-life exorcist Father Gary Thomas—named Michael Kovak here—has said that The Rite takes “expected licenses” with his story.
It begins with young Kovak (a passable but limp Colin O’Donoghue ) in the doldrums of working at his father’s funeral home. He’s a smart kid, a thoughtful skeptic that joins the seminary for lack of options. For four years of schooling, his skepticism remains intact and he’s about to bail out of the priest track. But, nope: He’s coerced to join an exorcist training camp sort of thing at the Vatican. Questions such as, “If we’re all of the devil, how can we fight the devil?” arise but are never allowed to sink in. One of the movie’s should-be heaviest moments involves the question of whether what these exorcists are onto qualifies as child abuse, with the disturbing answer, albeit implicit, being that if you’re a believer it doesn’t really matter.
Actually, that is only part of the answer. The full answer is that the question of faith becomes irrelevant in a horror movie. Faith doesn’t mean a whit in the face of the real, living, breathing devil talking out of a teenaged girl in a scary devil voice. A pretty good indication of how this movie goes awry is when Father Lucas tells his skeptical protégé that there are not going to be any heads spinning around or spewing pea soup, but then The Rite goes on to engage in just that sort of elaboration after its shift into scare tactics, which are, unfortunately, not scary or unconventional enough to make up for getting cheated out of what could’ve been a smart movie—with just a little faith.
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