Screenwriter Michael Petroni has crafted a very entertaining, if somewhat derivative, twist on the genre that makes for a decent movie.
Most Americans are very uncomfortable with the ideas and themes explored in The Rite. I’m not talking about portrayals of exorcisms or possessions; audiences have long since become desensitized to the fantastical depictions of these events. Where The Rite will lose audience favor is in its honest approach to religious skepticism and atheism. Americans are not comfortable with wholesale rejection of religious ideology (regardless of the particular religion) or complete disbelief in some higher power. Here, however, non-belief is a central theme around which most of the film’s plot revolves.
Along with movies about vampires, exorcism-themed films seem to be a cinema staple likely to enjoy continued popularity. The Rite takes a different approach to the genre by placing the young priest (who will, true to formula, soon be tutored by the older, wiser priest) at odds with the entire concept of exorcism because he does not believe in God, let alone the Devil. In the film, Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) chooses to enter the seminary because it seems like a vaguely more attractive alternative to taking over the family mortuary business from his father (Rutger Hauer).
Michael hopes that being surrounded by such ardent believers will help him sort through his doubts about religion, but at the end of his four years he has become no more convinced and prepares to exit the seminary before taking his vows as a priest. One of his instructors, Father Matthew (Toby Jones), encourages him to enroll in a highly select program of exorcism training in Rome before he officially quits. Father Matthew believes that he may find the proof he needs there.
Director Mikael Hafstrom, whose previous work includes 1408 and Derailed, gives credence to both sides of the argument over the existence of God. Michael challenges every priest he encounters with requests for proof and evidence of demons or possessions. Most times he is brushed off with a half-hearted, canned response or the kind of condescending chuckle normally reserved for melodramatic children who have meltdowns at the dinner table.
Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins) is a “nontraditional” exorcist who tests Michael’s beliefs, or lack thereof. Lucas’s meetings with a pregnant teenager who he believes to be possessed are handled in a very interesting way. Both Michael and Father Lucas have sufficient evidence to support their opinions of whether or not the girl is truly possessed, and Hafstrom does a nice job keeping the truth ambiguous for much of the film.
The story, based on the nonfiction book by Matt Baglio, spends far too much time on Michael’s background and in superfluous exposition, but the pace picks up not long into the movie and things progress steadily from there. Screenwriter Michael Petroni has crafted a very entertaining, if somewhat derivative, twist on the genre that makes for a decent movie.
Hopkins is terrific as the aging and conflicted priest who mentors the young Michael. He has clearly thrown himself into the role, and a performer of his caliber can pull off some scenes that, in another’s hands, would seem comical. O’Donoghue gives a very impressive performance that could be his introduction to American audiences. He doesn’t push the character’s own demons too far and plays the insolent schoolchild just enough without becoming unlikeable.
The Rite is a decent film from a clearly capable director and takes an intriguing approach to a tired formula. It’s worth a visit to the theater if for no other reason than for the discussions it will hopefully inspire. | Matthew F. Newlin