The Rite is a supernatural thriller about a young American priest Michael Kovak (O'Donoghue), who wracked with doubt, is considering leaving the priesthood without taking his final vows. Following a Papal edict seeking to place a trained exorcist in every Catholic diocese across the globe, the Vatican has started a course in exorcism. Kovak’s seminary mentor sends him to Rome to study demonic possession in a last ditch effort to get him back in the arms of the Church. Once in Rome and at exorcism school, Kovak’s doubts are not assuaged, so he is sent to visit Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), a more experienced but unorthodox exorcist who is ministering to a young woman apparently in the grip of demonic possession. Kavack has also met a young journalist on the course (Braga), who is desperate to write a story on a real exorcist.
Does this sound familiar? Despite the fact that The Rite bends over backwards to demand comparison to Freidkin and Blatty’s seminal horror The Exorcist, I’m going to try my absolute best to review it on its own merits. Directed with style by Håfström (who made the Stephen King adaptation 1408) this is a big glossy production, studded with fine character actors (Hinds, Hauer, Jones) and staring Hopkins. As seems to be the way with this subject matter it claims a factual basis (the edict to train a new generation of exorcists was indeed made in 2007), however it’s best to put this to the back of one’s mind when watching. Even within Catholicism the practice of exorcism is controversial and anyone coming from a secular point of view is liable to find their mind wandering to disturbing thoughts that this may not in fact be the best or most ethical way of treating people who are most likely mentally ill. The film pays little more than lip service to presenting this as a theme – The Exorcist dealt powerfully with the notion that modern psychiatry and medicine had failed and faith was a final resort. Darn, I’ve failed in my attempt not to mention The Exorcist already!
Steering away from tricky theological and ethical debates, The Rite is an enjoyable supernatural thriller that fails to rise above the preposterousness of its plot, but does offer enough opportunity for Hopkins to chew up the scenery enthusiastically. As the younger priest newcomer O’Donoghue is given some thankless dialogue, but brings a pleasing intensity to the role, (even if he looks distractingly like Michael Fassbender). He also does a very credible American accent – it was only reading the press notes after the screening that I realised he is actually Irish. Most impressive of all is Marta Gastini, playing the pregnant victim of possession.
The film changes tack and departs from its slavish homage to The Exorcist around it’s mid point. I won’t spoil this for potential viewers, even though it’s not something particularly surprising (although be warned, the trailer gives it away). However perhaps hobbled by need to downplay anything too nasty to gain its mass-market rating, the film never really goes for it the way I would like. There is little intentional humour on display in keeping with the tone, but there are a few unintentional moments, including one involving a mobile phone that made me spit beer over myself! Again I won’t spoil this for you, but it feels as though one of those cinema ads asking the audience not to let a mobile spoil the movie has been accidentally spliced in. Trust me, you won’t be able to stifle a guffaw when it happens.
Exorcism and possession remains potent subject matter for horror and while this film is a long way off being the last word on the topic, it is still a decent piece of entertainment – albeit a somewhat pedestrian affair.
This is very much The Exorcist-lite, made for a PG-13 certificate in the US it barely justifies the BBFC’s 15 rating. The cast are just a bit too attractive (I’m tempted to call it The Exorcist Diaries) and the exorcism scenes themselves are never harrowing enough to make the film scary. For all that it purports to show exorcism in a more low-key and realistic light, the film throws that away with some very non-naturalistic CG enhancements and makeup. At one point Hopkins says: “What did you expect, spinning heads and pea soup?” Well, actually … yes.