Sunday, January 30, 2011

Review: The Rite

Non Spoiler Review:
The Rite is the newest entry into the exorcism sub-genre of horror. The film begins with mortician Michael Kovak opting to go into the seminary in order to get his education, and perhaps drop out afterwards given his lack of faith. When his doubting attitude catches the attention of his superior at graduation, it's suggested he would be perfect to attend an exorcism course in the Vatican in lieu of dropping out (which would mean reimbursing the costs of his education to the church). So Michael heads off to Italy where he's introduced to the Catholic rite, and ultimately Anthony Hopkins, who shows him how it's done.

The movie is not lacking a great cast, with the master himself, Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas. Colin O'Donoghue plays the young faithless priest, Michael Kovak, and does well bringing a psychology major's skeptical perspective of what could clearly be mental disorders among the possessed. Rutger Hauer makes an appearance as Michael's creepy father. Alice Braga (from I am Legend) is the reliable sidekick she usually plays in these films. Mikael Håfström is director.

The Rite is beautifully shot, playing up the grand vistas of Rome as its background, as well as the more claustrophobic and run down tenements where Lucas and his patients live. Some elements worked. Ciaràn Hinds (from Rome) plays likable Father Xavier, the exorcism instructor, and two of the rites Michael witnesses with Lucas—a pregnant girl and a young boy—were perhaps the most interesting parts of the film. When Lucas is eventually possessed (no spoiler, as we see that in the trailer) we get Anthony Hopkins turned loose for the climax. There's no doubt that he can deliver these roles in spades. He's done so with regularity, so there's nothing surprising from his performance we haven't seen before starting from Silence of the Lambs

Ultimately, this felt like The Karate Kid for exorcisms. A faithless, novice priest gets trained by the master for the final big fight with the Devil (or Baal). While the cast were all fine in their roles, if not underused, the plot just did not support anything new and exciting for this particular horror genre. The audience is even reminded of the classic when Father Lucas references The Exorcist, and really, no film has yet to succeed in conveying the disturbing and ominous power of the Devil aside from it and The Omen. The movie is also not rated R, which these days is pretty much essential for something like this. You can't really convey the terror of the Devil when he's being censored on screen. Watching the girl Rosario's possession kept taking me back to Regan in The Exorcist and how much more powerful a performance that was.

We get the familiar possession signs—knowledge of the future and of the various characters' histories, contorted bodies and otherworldly voices, as well as dream sequences—including one demon-eyed mule, which I kind of liked, but it seemed to stick out from the rest of the film a bit.

The scares fall flat. If you're a horror fan, jumping cats and slamming doors aren't going to do it for you anymore. As far as disturbing images, these are also unmemorable (aforementioned demon horse). I found myself more creeped out by that one single footprint in Paranormal Activity than this entire movie.

Despite looking and sounding good, the film is uninspired and wasted potential. Michael's entire noncommittal entrance into the priesthood and even his relationship with Lucas never felt natural beyond plot points. I'm interested to know what the audience is supposed to take away from the ending. While the whole possession theme was played loosely enough to explain away as a serious psychological problem, all the flashbacks to Michael's youth seemed to be building to some kind of revelation, but eventually felt hollow. What we're left with is the if you only have faith, everything will be all right, as long as you're vigilante attitude that permeates a lot of these films.

The Rite also runs into the same wall many of these horror stories do—presenting a near omniscient power that seemingly can manipulate characters like players on a chessboard—but somehow these super-intelligent fallen angels are forced into giving up their names and being cast out purely on the basis of faith. For a large part of the audience, that sort of thing just doesn't cut it anymore. If the writer is offering the audience the choice between a supernatural or psychological explanation, it robs the film of any message. The religious in the audience may sigh happily when Michael accepts God into his life to defeat the Devil, but the atheists in the group are just as likely to be rolling their eyes. 

I would like to see this genre explore deeper issues beyond just Catholic exorcism—provide a new explanation why a creature so powerful and intelligent as a demon would bother itself possessing mere human insects. Just to piss off God? We don't see any true atheists getting possessed. They're all very devout or once devoutly religious. How about demons that aren't Christian? Why not explore otherworldly entities that just masquerade for our religions, something that a small film like Paranormal Activity did very well, and with much less budget. In this film, as well as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, once an entity latched on to someone it was implied they were pretty much screwed. It's more effective when mundane non-religious suburbanites can be terrorized by something nasty rather than devout Catholics.

Catch The Rite when it hits the movie channels, but it's not worth the coin to see it in the theatre if you're looking for something new and exciting to add to the genre. However, if you happen to be a sincere Catholic, it would be a very nice feel good flick, promoting the power of faith.

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