The Rite is being widely – and barely affectionately – labelled “the other exorcism movie”, and is in many respects a story we have already been told. The young, reluctant priest Michael (Colin O’Donoghue) is taught the nuances of exorcism by an unorthodox old hat (Anthony Hopkins) and together they battle the demon possessing a young pregnant girl whose condition worsens as the demon revels in his provocation of the priests’ discomfort and exasperation. Michael is plunged into the deep when he has to perform his first exorcism alone, whilst also battling his own doubts and a dark family history. Meanwhile, he forms a friendship with Angeline (Alice Braga), a beautiful Italian journalist trying to crack open the clandestine ritual for an article.
Whilst The Rite is not a film that will give you nightmares, its lack of tension is almost inexcusable. There are certainly moments that will make you jump and a few crude plays towards the squeamish (fingernails scratching over a wooden armrest is an easy shudder), but no real apprehension. It also lacks the bizarre. Every visual incarnation of the diabolic is familiar: red-eyed donkeys, cursed jewellery, inverted crucifixes. This is a stylised film with an Italian gothic set design and a great proliferation of creepy religious artwork and devotionals. The realisation of a ‘deco-dungeon’ hospital ward is particularly evocative and the plague-like herds of symbolic animals crawling over each set add a nice menace.
Braga as the sympathetic journalist gives a performance a little too close to that of the Audrey Tatou character in frightful Ron Howard adaptation of The Da Vinci Code. It is unfortunate so much time is wasted ensuring that there is a pretty face present. One senses the questioning Angeline is there in order to counterpoint the victimhood of Rosaria (Marta Gastini), whose possession suggests the traditional weakness of women against diabolical temptation. But realistically, Braga needn’t be in the film at all. It’s especially unfortunate that blockbuster convention requires that we have a leading lady in this film, because the leading man is an unavailable, celibate priest. It’s an awkward and ill-fitting plot point. And not in a cute, Michael Cera way.
The subject of The Rite is an interesting choice for a script in a Western paradigm where the only religious rites still widely practised; weddings, funerals, Easter and Christmas; have become the stuff of the secular marketplace more than the church. Indeed a priest needn’t be present for these events to be celebrated at all. In this climate, it seems that only demonic possession interrupts a person’s ability to go about living spiritually in a manner independent of priestly assistance.
This is old news, however. The question is, does The Rite satisfy? Does it remind us of rich and dramatic religious traditions upon which European culture thrived long ago? Despite being a film purportedly founded on anecdotal accounts of real exorcisms, The Rite’s rendering of the ritual puts the Devil’s magic on par with that of an unimaginative Hollywood art director. This is blockbuster stuff, and no sense of real religious content is conveyed. The Rite makes the exorcism ritual look like heretical witchcraft.
Where The Exorcist was a film about the exhaustion and costs of liberating the innocent, The Rite implies that nasty demons can be vanquished in a jiffy with just willpower and purity of heart. The character of the devil in possession of the body is a dominating presence in The Rite, and seems to have been written with several of the great adversaries of cinema history in mind. It is vindictive, vulgar, violent and frighteningly changeable, a patchwork of well-known movie baddies: there is a little of the omnipresence of Kevin Spacey’s psychotic zealot from Se7en here, shades of the malignant Catholic conspirator of Vatican thriller Angels and Demons, a bestial madness like that of Fishburne’s Othello, and even a touch of the fantasy-style villainry of Sauron.
In the movies, evil has been embodied by all kinds of characters, from creepy Bond villains, to the Daleks, to Freddy Krueger and Darth Vader. Over time superstition and the Devil have become fictionalised, no longer real anxieties, and are systematically replaced on screen by other forms of evil: serial killers, crackpot scientists, zombies, destructive sentient robots or enormous CGI-generated monsters. In the end, the greatest disappointment in The Rite is its inability to revive that ancient sense of dread the Devil made us feel, a chilling sense of his proximity to the moviegoers. This Devil was born on Sunset Boulevard.