MacGuffin Film Review – The Rite

Film Review – The Rite

While I don’t believe that The Rite (2011) will go down as one of the great horror films like, say, The Exorcist (1973), it does have a surprisingly effective way of telling its story of a skeptical young priest and the experienced exorcist knowing that he is walking down a very dangerous path. Yes, we have scenes of people tossing and turning, spitting out languages we don’t understand and cringing at the sight of crosses and holy water; that’s all a given. But what I liked about this apart from other religiously themed films is that it takes itself seriously—it doesn’t look down on the characters in it or at their beliefs. You can believe in a God, or in a heaven and a hell, and all that, but this film doesn’t judge, it simply tells its story and lets it be.

Although the trailers would make you believe that the story revolves around the priest Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), the real main character is that of Michael Kovak, played by first timer Colin O’Donoghue. The story begins with Kovak at a crossroads in his life. Having lost his mother at a young age, Kovak has grown up to work in his father’s (Rutger Hauer) mortuary, preparing dead bodies for funerals. Kovak is an interesting character, because he is not perfect. Needing to gain an education, but not having the means to pay for it, Michael devises a scheme to enter the priesthood, gain a free education, and drop out before he takes his final vows. He never had the intention to become a priest, always having a skeptical view of many of the beliefs of the church. Early on in the film, we see him questioning and debating the validity of the church’s claims, and he does so in an intelligent and respectful way.

Now, if Michael succeeds in removing himself from the priesthood, we wouldn’t have a movie, would we? One of his counselors, Father Matthew (Toby Jones) knows of Michael’s wavering faith but can see that he has a lot of potential to do good as a priest. To help stir up his belief in religion, Father Matthew decides to send Michael to a special program in Rome. The Vatican has a course that deals with the history and practice of exorcism, and Father Matthew feels that by seeing it first hand, Michael may be able to find the tangible proof that he needs. Michael travels to Italy and is quickly introduced to Father Trevant, an unorthodox priest who lives in a drab home overrun by cats. Michael quickly becomes involved with Father Trevant’s exorcisms, helping and seeing up close a number of people tortured by what they feel is demonic possession. It’s during these scenes where we see the usual stuff, with Father Trevant holding a cross, saying a prayer, and the subject trying to do their best impression of Linda Blair. These scenes were the least interesting to me, because, like I said, we’ve seen it before. What I was more fascinated with was Michael’s outlook on these happenings, how he feels about them, and whether or not he is swayed by them.

It is explained early on that the church dismisses the majority of possession claims as the rantings of psychologically disturbed individuals. All subjects claiming to be possessed must go through a clinical examination, and even then, the church must debate whether or not the behavior of the individual is the result of demonic control. For Michael, this is simply not enough to persuade him. I feel the best parts of the film happen when Michael and Father Trevant debate the authenticity of the exorcisms. Although Michael has seen these people up close, even to the point of witnessing a subject cough up a nail, he always has a reasonable explanation for everything. But, as he himself begins to hear voices in his head, when unexplainable events occur that involve his own past, and Father Trevant begins to act very strangely in his own right, Michael has to come to the reality that everything may not be easily explained by science, and that to stop the apparent evil from taking over his life, he’ll have to restore the faith that he lost the moment he lost his mother many years ago.

Sir Anthony Hopkins was appropriately cast to play the eccentric Father Trevant. As we all well know from his past work, Hopkins has the uncanny ability to play creepy, menacing characters that are at the same time curiously friendly and cordial. Hopkins plays Trevant as peculiar, funny, and self-deprecating, but not perfect. His unusual practices lend a lot to Michael’s skepticism. He tells his subjects what they want to hear and many times fools them into thinking that the danger is over, perhaps because he feels that the danger is only in their mind. But he knows full well that the potential for danger is real, and that Michael’s rejection of it isn’t enough to prevent him from being exposed to it. For the character of Michael, Colin O’Donoghue plays him completely straight faced. This is his feature film debut, and it shows. O’Donoghue’s acting here is fairly unexpressive, sufficient to get the job done but not enough to really pull us in. I thought, however, that the character’s background was well-written. Written by Michael Petroni, there is a good amount of dedication toward Michael’s crisis of faith. We concentrate a lot on his childhood and the reasons why he feels the way that he does. That is where I feel the center of the story lies.

In the end, I think that The Rite was incorrectly marketed. Advertisements would have you thinking that the film is a straight horror/thriller with scares abounding, but in reality, it’s more of a character study involving one man’s journey to discover his place in the world. The film does have many faults: the cinematography was dull, the CGI was poor, and the story isn’t really anything hasn’t already been done. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has earned a whopping 17% fresh rating, just above Yogi Bear (2010). I think that is unfair. Yes, this film isn’t great, but it certainly isn’t a cinematic disaster either. That’s got to count for something.

Final Grade: B-

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