There's no pea soup, but The Rite spews its story just the same

The Rite is the latest of at least a dozen widely released American movies in half as many years with demonic possession a major plot point. This doesn't mean the subject is wrung out; its continuing resonance with audiences hasn't been effaced by secular pop psychology or modernization within the church. It does, though, mean that any new attempt must come with a hook.

For one: Prefaced with a quote from Pope John Paul II, The Rite, set in a specifically Catholic milieu, courts believers. Also, in the character of Father Lucas, it introduces the exorcist as a workaday, house-calls healer. (As Lucas, Anthony Hopkins is disarmingly distracted, softly authoritative, and given to prancing when the role takes a bipolar turn.) "What'd you expect? Spinning heads, pea soup?" he asks a novice, young Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue). Michael, whose initiation into exorcism propels the plot, is introduced working in his family's mortuary in a small-town, dead-end America shown in a few shorthand shots. Needing a ticket out, he chooses seminary school, despite having no apparent surplus of faith or zeal. "Four Years Later," still not having developed the required vocational feeling, he's ready to leave, but is talked into visiting Rome for a trial run in an exorcist training program. Here Michael begins his apprenticeship to Lucas, a Welsh Jesuit tending to the daily exorcism needs of Roman families. Watching Lucas on his rounds, Michael clings to his doubt — even when viewing a contorted patient who plays a game of Twister without the mat — becomes fluently profane in foreign tongues, and coughs up iron nails.

The Rite is based on a book by Matt Baglio, documenting the true story of the initiation of fifty-something Reverend Gary Thomas of Los Altos, California, as an exorcist. Thomas and Baglio apparently weren't a sufficiently "box office" duo, so the film introduces Michael to Angeline (Alice Braga), a journalist investigating exorcism who's sitting in on one of his classes, where they begin dialogue and a mild flirtation — one of several reassurances to the viewer that celibate Michael is heterosexual.


Directed by Mikael Håfström. Written by Michael Petroni. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Colin O'Donoghue, Alice Braga and Rutger Hauer.

Initial efforts to de-familiarize the material stop well before Michael has stepped up for his part in a climactic spiritual tug-of-war — with no pea soup, but its own 21st-century shlock effects. O'Donoghue, up to this point a functional protagonist, darkly handsome in a clerical collar, doesn't demonstrate the authority to throw someone out of his house, much less dispel Satan's minions. His opponent is every bit his lightweight match. Depending on one's prejudices, belief in demonology may be thought adolescent; as finally manifest in The Rite, demons are literally juvenile. Affecting a Valley-girl inflection, remembering Michael as "a little boy pooping in his pants" and mocking his crush on Angeline — in words carefully within the bounds of a PG-13 rating — Michael's nemesis comes off as a nasty older sister.

Director Mikael Håfström's foot-dragging pace makes a pretense of intent character study, but Michael's spiritual trials are occluded by Michael Petroni's patchy screenplay. As Michael clings to his skepticism before manifestations of the inexplicable, The Rite never brings the viewer onto his seesaw of doubt. Michael's own "demons" are suggested via flashbacks of a walking-dead father (Rutger Hauer), a literally dead mother, and the undertaker's slab. But his motivations remain arbitrary and inscrutable, right down to his entry into the seminary. This is brought up by a number of characters, who interpret his implausible career decision as A Sign. It is...of bad writing.

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Charles K. Byrne
Charles K. Byrne

For those who would believe, no explanation is necessary, for those who wouldn’t, no explanation is enough.The movie The Rite is to exorcisms what The Right Stuff was to space travel. Sure, today’s audiences love Armageddon and other ‘space’ movies filled with action and suspense… but both Tom Wolfe’s book, and the movie The Right Stuff also dealt with the tediousness of the never-ending medical tests, the selection process, the indignity of ‘space chimps’ and the mendacity of press conferences. Why? Because Wolfe wasn’t writing an action packed thrill-a-minute joy ride… he was documenting the early American space program.

So it is with The Rite. The vast majority of the beginning of this latest exorcism fare is spent introducing us to priest-in-training Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue). Above all, we learn that he has chosen his path reluctantly and without any particular calling. After four years at seminary school, he is ready to give up the whole idea of priesthood but his plans for an exit are interrupted when his Father Superior (Toby Jones) sends him to Rome hoping that training as an exorcist might intrigue him and entice him to stay. Father Kovak takes to Rome a full suitcase of disbelief, cynicism, and agnosticism. He challenges his Roman instructor (Ciaran Hinds) at every turn and makes no qualms in expressing his disbelief. For those viewers with short attention spans, this is the interminably long part of the film.

It takes nearly half-an-hour before we see what most viewers have come to see – Hannibal Lec…… errr… I mean Anthony Hopkins. This will prove to be, however one of Sir Hopkins best roles (insomuch as range of character, playing opposite ends of humanity and still being credible, and giving more than a taste of what we loved so much in Silence of the Lambs).At this point, I’d love to say the pace of the movie picks up, there are trembling walls, spinning beds and Linda Blairs left and right, but this isn’t a horror or gore movie. At this point we learn about Hopkin’s character (Father Lukas Trevant) and a bit more about the beliefs behind exorcism, as well as the day-to-day ministering to the sick and possessed.

All the slow time is not without reason. Like society’s impression of demonic possession in general, we are lulled into thinking this is going nowhere, it’s a sham, it’s parlor tricks and much ado about nothing. At one point, Hopkins gives a line quite similar to the famous, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist” from The Usual Suspects.The climax is worth every moment spent watching celluloid as thrilling as home movies. You realize what a prefect skeptic Fr. Kovak is; how unprepared he is for the task at hand, and we truly wonder what the outcome will be.

This movie takes turns and gives insights no previous exorcism movie has taken – perhaps because it was based on the true account of a California priest (Fr. Gary Thomas) and journalist Matt Baglio (changed by Hollywood to the very attractive Alice Braga). The special effects are spectacular without breaking the illusion of reality. Your greatest fears will come from the possibility that this is real, rather than any overblown, unrealistic horror effects.Rating – Not quite The Exorcist for spectacular Horror/Thrill, and more believable than even Emily Rose.(4 out of 5 spinning, pea-soup chucking heads)


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