Given the somewhat peculiar abundance of exorcism films of late, it seemed that, with its strong cast and fairly intense marketing, The Rite might be poised to take a spot high up in the possession film hierarchy. It’s aided by the fact that for the most part, its gimmick isn’t really a gimmick at all, but rather hinges on a philosophical debate. And much of the film, which involves watching that debate play out against the backdrop of potential possessions in a lushly shot Rome, is rather engaging, if a bit sluggish. Does that mean it succeeds and moves itself beyond films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Last Exorcist Well…
The Rite focuses its attention on a young seminary student, Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), the son of a mortician who is, unsurprisingly, questioning his faith. On the brink of abandoning his robes before he can even don them, he is sent to Rome by a clever teacher (the wonderful, underused Toby Jones) to attend what is essentially “exorcism school,” which is about as preposterous as it sounds. The film claims to be based on a series of facts, so perhaps such a thing actually exists — regardless, one has to overcome that leap in order to get into the swing of things. Either way, once there Michael is sent to spend time with the renegade, somewhat unorthodox Father Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), a hardened exorcism veteran, to gain some hands-on knowledge of exorcisms.
What happens from there on is actually a surprisingly interesting take on the genre — it focuses not on the possessed so much as on the exorcists themselves and their attempts to decide where, if there exists one, the line between possession and schizophrenia or mental disturbance may lie. It’s a keenly developed debate, and the film benefits from not shouting its intentions, but rather subtly whispering them. The possessions, at least the early ones, are surprisingly subdued affairs — no heads spinning, no copious bile-vomiting, and no one walks on ceilings or gets all spider-limbed for no reason. In fact, what makes it appealing, and makes the questions that Michael asks worth asking, is that that line seems so fine for much of the film. A pregnant girl who could easily be suffering from stress-induced psychological trauma. A young boy whose signs are difficult to ascertain. Coupled with the fact that Trevant uses a combination of kindly questioning, slight-of-hand, and outright charlatanry to practice his craft, and it’s no wonder that Michael’s skepticism is tough to shake.
The downside is that the film moves at a brutally slow pace, and much of the conversation feels occasionally redundant. It’s aided by some splendid cinematography, mostly devoid of washes or artificial hues (another boon given the supernatural genre’s tendency to bombard viewers’ eyes), and some remarkable symbolism that manifests itself in rather catchy ways. It’s also supplemented by an outstanding supporting cast — a subdued Rutger Hauer as Michael’s mortician father, Alice Braga as a reporter and ally, and Ciarán Hinds as one of the Vatican’s top exorcism lecturers. But the pacing is downright plodding at times. I quite enjoy dialogue-heavy films when there’s purpose and weight to the words, and for much of The Rite there is…. but not for all of it, and sometimes you just want them to get to the damned point, if you’ll pardon the pun.
And therein lies the true stumbling block with The Rite, which is its incongruously overblown and bombastic ending. It’s a difficult scenario to resolve, and director Mikael Håfström was unfortunately not content to let it happen organically. The ending, while not a true fire-and-brimstone, ground bursting open and demons running amok action climax, still doesn’t work given the pace and atmosphere of the film’s first 60 minutes. Mainly because of this: the protagonist’s entire dilemma was trying to find his faith and being unable to discern the difference between the divine and the normal, the demonic and the deranged. What got me to stay in the theater was that question of faith and how one deals with it when the evidence isn’t resolute. Yet by the ending, all has changed — doors are slamming, eyes are turning black, things are catching fire — it screams supernatural! Hopkins’ portrayal of Trevant was a subtle, introspective performance, that got garishly overblown and ridiculous at the conclusion. All of this cheapens Michael’s eventual coming to terms with his belief — hell, if those things happened to me, an avowed atheist, you’re damn right I’d believe. All of the subtlety of the earlier philosophical and religious debates was abandoned. If the dilemma is about faith, than one’s faith should be just that. Instead, it gives something more akin to overwhelming evidence, which defeats the entire purpose of Michael’s uncertainty.
That’s the fundamental disappointment — at the end, it resorted to derivative, Hollywood devices to create a climax. The Rite wasn’t perfect to start with, but it was at least interesting and pretty to look at. But as it staggered towards its ending, it left its basic premise behind — questioning the nature of faith and the dichotomy of science and religion — and simply switched to more rote and pedestrian devices. The Rite had an interesting premise, a clever, if glacially paced story, and then the final act inexplicably swung into spinning-head mode. In the closing 30 minutes, I had thrown my hands in the air, resigned to my fate and waiting for the pea soup to spew.