Original release: February 25th 2011
Running time: 113 minutes
Director: Mikael Håfström
Writer: Michael Petroni
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Rutger Hauer, Marta Gastini
In some way, Hopkins’ statement hints at the reason why The Rite has gone through heaven and hell since its release back in 2011. Whereas The Exorcist (1973) or The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) have somewhat been elevated to cult status, every new movie with the subject of demonic possession and exorcism inevitably splits the camp. Some dismissed it as a B-movie while others adored it for a compelling story and remarkable cinematography.
In this case, it doesn’t even depend on your believing or not-believing in the Satanic. Repeatedly, we’ve been told the film was based on a journalistic account by Matt Baglio (The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist), and the filmmakers have used every opportunity to stress their intent of “keeping it real”. This, with all due respect, is rather impossible.
To begin with, The Rite has the ingredients you would expect from a supernatural thriller of this kind such as frog infestation, a mule with red eyes, vomiting up of nails, post-mortem telepathy, cats aplenty and dark atmospheric conditions. Not to forget the screaming and thrashing. You could say this sounds like a rosary of clichés but I think this would be beside the point. The movie presents the tell signs of demonic proximity in a unique way. To me it did not feel cliché at all.
The Rite, however, has its weaker moments, mostly when the story becomes too strong for its main character. Seminary student Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), a brooding sceptic who seems more in dispute with the purpose of his life than his beliefs, is a rather draggy chap, driven by events or circumstances and far less by himself.
First we learn he attends the Exorcism school at the Vatican only to avoid paying back a hefty student loan, then he suffers silently from the sight of accident victims and tedious lessons at the Vatican, only to reluctantly throw himself into The Rite – in the end, and literally forced by the overwhelming power of Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), an unorthodox Jesuit who has performed countless exorcisms.
Then again, this kind of ignorance and ineffectual way of life might actually be the seed of evil, or one of them. It may well be I wouldn’t have cared as much about the story without this half-believing deadbeat Kovak appears to be until the last third of the film. His constant calls for psychological assessment of a possessed girl sound more and more like the escapism of a man who doesn’t want to believe although by common sense there would be no alternative.
Believe it nor not, The Rite actually appeals to common sense. The question is if we are better off taking demonic possession – at least – as an ancient metaphor on the evil that potentially is in all of us, and how we treat it. On this note, it’s not really helpful that The Rite makes us believe the Devil’s influence on Earth has reached epidemic proportions, although the Church actually dismisses most of the reported cases.
Undeniably, the excrescences of the evil, whether or not named and blamed on Satan, Lucifer or the Devil, are a phenomenon, but as far as my agnostic ways of thinking go, this seems to be very much psychological, with underlying questions of ethics and
morale. In a way, the vanishing of genuine spirituality is the true story of The Rite, and once you let go of prejudice and preconception, this movie has a message.
But the message strongly relies on the side characters of the story. Michael Kovak’s father (Rutger Hauer) for instance, a mortician with an apparently dark soul and far reach into the mind and eventually the dreams of his son. A man who has made a living with the dead for many years, Istvan Kovak displays a stoicism and gloom that seems so far from the joy of life as can be. Hauer fits the old man with a presence that stayed with me the whole time. If anyone, Kovak Sr. may have contributed more to his son’s “awakening” than Father Lucas.
On the other side of the darkness is Rosaria (Marta Gastini), a heavily pregnant teenage girl, abused by her father and subject of Kovak’s induction into exorcism. This girl is the epitome of pain and suffering, both physical and mental. She certainly is “possessed”, and we are made to assume by a demonic entity.
Her treatment by Father Lucas is horrifying but not without sarcasm. Only when the priest gets a call on his mobile phone during the ritual, I’m reminded this is the 21st century. Although The Rite takes Exorcism more seriously than I thought, it does so without exploitation.
Visually, the film is a masterpiece, with what I would almost call eclectic cinematography. I was stunned by the hi-tech design of the Vatican’s Seminary, in contrast to the splendour of its other buildings, and to the state of Father Lucas’ residence. Hopkins plays his parts in a setting so eerie and atmospheric that we cannot doubt a presence of sorts.
Ultimately, Hopkins’ performance is one of the most captivating I have seen in years. It allows us to make up our own minds about the mysteries of exorcism, possession, good and evil, and not least has made The Rite the excellent film it is. When Lucas’ plight comes to a head, it is somehow like exorcising Father Hannibal.
One of the Editors in Chief and our webmaster, Jonahh is a photographer and journalist who has been working in the media industry for over 15 years, mainly in television, design and art. As a boy, he made his first short film with an 8mm camera and the help of his father. His obsession with (moving) images and stories hasn’t faded since.
His passion for intricate stories and the ‘seven basic plots’ (ask him!) often times makes his friends and family put him in the doghouse for "predicting" too many twists and endings.