Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Rite (2011)

Exorcism pictures have really enjoyed a commercial comeback in the last few years; probably the most big budget and high brow of these is the new Mikael Håfström film The Rite -- or, as it may more likely be referred to, "that Anthony Hopkins as a possessed priest movie" (particularly since the poster kind of makes it look like the film's title is RHE which of course makes no sense whatsoever).

For about the first half hour, we're just getting to know our protagonist, Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue): his childhood spent watching Dad the mortician (Rutger Hauer) make dead women look beautiful for their funerals (even kissing them on their foreheads); now all grown-up and handsome, studying for the priesthood but, as the film is at odds to point out, definitely not in any way gay or creepy. Creating a sympathetic male character deciding to be a priest in a 2011 Hollywood film is no small task, and I thought The Rite tread this dicey ground amicably enough. But we're really here to see Anthony Hopkins sit in a room and be scary like Hannibal Lecter, right? So what's up?

Well, eventually Mr. Kovak gets sent to Rome for a couple of months' study. There he meets Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds) who gives us a scary lecture (literally) on exorcism, and then arranges for Monsieur Kovak to meet local ace exorcist Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins). Finally! At first, Father Trevant is rather quiet and kindly and gentle seeming, but he does exorcise demons out of people after all, and it isn't too long before he's doing just that, and seeming a little less gentlemanly than before each time.

After Kovak's first exorcism experience, one that is relatively free of incident, Trevant jokes, "what were you expecting? Pea soup?" So this is a self-aware exorcism film (not sure that's a good thing really). Well, there may not be any pea soup, but there sure is a very sexualized young girl (possessed by a devil) to shock filmgoers with; just so her sluttiness is obvious, she's visibly quite pregnant and does a lot of moving around (of a style that'll make anyone who has been pregnant quite nervous), as well as licking her lips and acting all willful, telling Father Trevant to rape her (it turns out the baby is the product of her own father raping her). Even today, it seems the most terrifying kind of person we can imagine being corrupted is a young woman.

A possessed priest is pretty awful too though I guess, and yes, eventually we do get to see Anthony Hopkins tied up to a chair looking super sketchy and saying things like "titties" or "God is dead". At this point, to be honest, I was sort of thinking 'so what'. It's not like he'd killed anyone and put their entire blood supply in jars without spilling a single drop or anything like that now, was it? Or molested any children and been transferred to another diocese? It reminded me of nothing so much as your parent's first signs of Alzheimer's, really; "Oh, Dad's starting to say some really embarrassing stuff at dinner". He's supposed to be full on possessed by an ACTUAL DEMON.

Finally, do we really think that the apprentice isn't going to be up to exorcising the master? And, if not, what then? Would Demon Priest kill a bunch of nuns, rule the world in a fiery New Age of Sin, and get everyone to sodomizing or something? Presumably he'd just be exorcised by some other priest. He is in Italy, after all. There are lots of them there.

Beautifully shot, well acted, and taking place in some very nice locations, The Rite still winds up being disappointing. It plays with its audience, at least up to the climax, giving us a protracted case of 'is it real? is it faked?' back and forth, over and over, until I was beginning to get confused as to whether Father Trevant was a charlatan or a true believer at all. I would offer this as a central weakness of the film (Doubt does this sort of thing much better); it also interferes with the whole plot point of whether Kovak truly believes or not - a character trait that has incidentally become quite a cliche in this cinematic sub-genre.

Why does it matter whether Kovak believes or not? Because he has to exorcise a devil from poor old Father Trevant (incidentally, the reveal of this demon's name had me flashing on Don Fleming and Kramer's sorely missed band B.A.L.L. so that whole scene struck me as unintentionally funny). It occurs in retrospect that the whole film could have easily been presented from the sexy reporter Angeline (Alice Braga)'s secular POV, were it not for having to exorcise Trevant in the end -- something she cannot do, not because she has trouble with belief, but because she has a vagina and therefore can't be a priest.

The way at which the film arrives at its conclusion is pretty problematic too: we know God exists because we know the Devil exists? Hmmm. How do we know the Devil exists? Well, some rather provincial girl from Italy knew all these personal things about Kovak and, heck, doors close by themselves and candles get blown out and predictions come true and… Eeesh.

For a real slice of cinema on the same subject, it's hard to beat the cheesy goodness of George C. Scott's "I Believe" monologue in Exorcist III. Let's enjoy that now --


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