The rite stuff
Roughly every year or so, Hollywood feels the need to make money from a reliable genre such as horror, within which are several sub-genres whose popularity comes and gos. Demon possession and exorcism have always guaranteed an audience, ever since 1973’s landmark film The Exorcist. Still considered the best by many (including this reviewer), few subsequent exorcism films have managed to deliver the same quality.
The latest addition to the canon is The Rite. Michael Kovak, a young American seminary student filled with doubts, finds himself taking exorcism classes at the Vatican in search of the answers to his theological questions.
Confronted with Kovak’s persistent reservations, his lecturer advises him to seek out Father Lucas, an unorthodox priest who has conducted thousands of exorcisms. Lucas, played by Anthony Hopkins, agrees to apprentice the sceptical Kovak, insisting that he accompany him on all his visits to distraught families.
As is often the case with tales of possession, the producers feel the need to point out that such a film is based on a true story, adding an element of authenticity to what can appear a quite outlandish premise. While some of these claims are a little far-fetched, to put it no more strongly than that (think The Blair Witch Project) The Rite’s source story is rooted in events as recent as 2007, when the Vatican declared its intention to have a qualified exorcist working in each diocese worldwide. This story is based on a priest who took part in the training, conducted exorcisms and who now practises as one of 14 exorcists in the USA.
Anthony Hopkins is already famous for his disconcerting role as Hannibal Lecter – so much so that he was wary of taking on similar roles typecasting him as, in his own words, ‘a weirdo’. But there was something about The Rite which enticed the Welsh actor to delve once into the darker world of the human soul. Hopkins has recently been quoted in interviews talking about his faith in God, a faith he confirms has been with him for a long time.
There are a handful of good scares throughout, but it’s by no means as scary as the poster and trailer suggest. The film is primarily concerned with Kovak’s desire to find the truth behind the exorcisms, which is why his exchanges with Father Lucas are by far the best bits of the film. As such, The Rite feels like a muddled affair at times. The interaction between Kovak and Lucas would have thrived as a psychological drama, whereas the horror clichés seem to be there to justify making money from fans of the genre.
Hopkins’ Lucas is immensely watchable as the worldly-wise exorcist who’s seen it all before. Cautious Kovak fears that what they witness are merely psychiatric symptoms of schizophrenia or multiple personality disorders. Lucas’s response? ‘The interesting thing about sceptics is that we’re always looking for proof. The question is, ‘What on Earth would we do if we found it?’
As such, the film is ultimately far more concerned with the power of Christ in the face of evil than it is with horror clichés. Priests and Baptist minsters alike can testify to the overwhelming assurance the Holy Spirit provides when praying in the name of Jesus. The term ‘spiritual warfare’ is often bandied about as a symbolic expression, but for those on the front lines it’s real enough. As Father Lucas says, ‘Choosing not to believe in the Devil won’t protect you from him.’
Not as iconic or profound as The Exorcist – nor as scary or unsettling as The Exorcism of Emily Rose – The Rite is a tight little thriller which is more interested in the journey to faith than dabbling with demons.