The Rite

By Scott Martin

The Rite, USA, 2011The Rite movie

Directed by Mikael Håfström

The Rite is a curious film. We get a film in the exorcism genre once a year, it seems, but we don’t usually get films that take consideration of what they’re  studying. In 1973, The Exorcist debuted to stellar box office and reviews, and in 2005, The Exorcism of Emily Rose came to theaters and was much maligned. Emily Rose, based on the factual exorcism of a young German girl called Annalise Michel, has been called more authentic than The Exorcist; however, it isn’t the famous one. The more serious and accurate the film, it seems, the less popular it becomes. The Rite falls in the middle of these two: a serious film, that still comes with all the frills. No spinning heads, no constant vomiting, but still loads of flopping around and other traits of “cinematic possession”. It’s a film that ponders several questions, most  importantly, “What happens when a priest gets a demon?”

We all have our demons. Matt Balgio’s book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, upon which the film is based, examines the demons of Father Gary Thomas, a California priest sent to study exorcisms in the Vatican. I haven’t read the book, but it is safe to assume the film takes liberties simply because it is a film; what was a journalist’s exploration became a Hollywood chiller. That seems to be the case, more often than not, doesn’t it? Where The Rite gets it right, though, is in its atmosphere. It’s a studied version of a studied tale, and while the liberties are taken, the effect is still the same. The film presupposes, as it has to, that exorcism is real, and very much something to be dealt with seriously.

Director Mikael Hafstrom’s last film, 1408 (2007), is terrific; based on a very scary book by Stephen King, it’s a very scary film. He’s a talented director, and he definitely understands the genre in which he’s made his name. In 1408, he found the most important part of the job and ran with it: the ability to connect with his actors. John Cusack had rarely been better than in that film, and in The Rite, Anthony Hopkins is just as strong as ever as Father Lucas, the priest with the demon. Unfortunately, our leading man isn’t as engaging. Colin O’Donoghue stars as the priest sent to study the rite of exorcisms and demon possession, but doesn’t have it in him to command the screen away from a heavyweight like Hopkins. Hopkins has made a career from being intimidating, and he puts it to efficient use here.

Perhaps the one nagging flaw in the film is its dedication to its Hollywood-ized greenlight, despite Hafstrom’s dedication to the material. You can tell that the team behind the film believes enough in what’s going on to make a convincing film, but it clashes with the atmosphere that’s been created. It’s a sort of cyclical flaw that can be overlooked, but considering that a film like this is all about the atmosphere, it winds up being a prevalent complaint. All things considered, though, The Rite is strong and effective, about as much as we can hope for in today’s modern exorcists.

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