Ever since 1973, when Linda Blair screamed obscenities at a priest, vomited pea soup, masturbated with a crucifix, and endured her head’s rotating 360 degrees on her body in “The Exorcist,” the big screen has been bombarded with films dealing with exorcisms. As one who has no faith in the existence of demonic possession, I have found all these films to be ludicrously unbelievable and monotonously repetitive. And “The Rite,” the most recent addition to the growing canon of priest-versus-the-devil films, is no exception.
Based loosely on journalist Matt Baglio’s 2009 book of the same name, “The Rite” begins with the following pronouncement by Pope John Paul II displayed on the screen: “The battle against the Devil, which is the principal task of Saint Michael the Archangel, is still being fought today because the Devil is still alive and active in the world.”
After these grim words, we join young Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), who is working as embalmer at his father’s funeral home in Chicago. But Michael doesn’t want to spend his life preparing bodies for the funeral ritual, and because he doesn’t have enough money to pay for a college education, he decides to become a priest and enters a seminary.
As Michael nears graduation from seminary, he begins to doubt his faith in God, and Father Matthew (Tony Jones), one of his teachers, convinces him to go to Rome for a special course in exorcism. At first Michael is skeptical of embarking upon such a venture, but he ultimately agrees to go, and Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds), the priest in charge of the exorcism class, arranges for Michael to study with Father Lucas (Academy Award winner Sir Anthony Hopkins). Father Lucas has performed thousands of exorcisms, and the church recognizes him as the leading expert in the field.
Thus, the main part of the film deals with Michael’s training at the hands of Father Lucas, and the young priest really gets a baptism under fire so to speak. In fact, Father Lucas wastes no time in taking Michael along with him to see a 16-year-old expectant mother whom the devil has decided to torment. Shortly after Father Lucas begins saying pertinent Latin words intended to make the demon leave the girl’s body, she begins going into all kinds of contortions, and when Father Lucas concludes his ritual, Michael is surprised that the girl remains possessed.
When Michael questions the old exorcist about his failure, Father Lucas replies, “Well, what did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?” And this homage to the 1973 film is the best part of “The Rite.” After this scene, the film degenerates into a massive cliché of every other exorcist film ever made. And I found the whole thing a huge bore. Even my daughter, Stephanie, who kindly accompanies me to films like this because she has an affinity for frightening movies, admitted that the movie “did nothing” for her.
The main thing movie did for me, however, was raise a question in my mind. Why does Hopkins, who is one of the most talented actors in the world, lower himself to making a film like this? I can’t imagine that he needs the money, but maybe he does. All I know is that this guy who can play everyone from a creepy nut like Hannibal Lecter to Richard Nixon to Othello is simply too good for trash like “The Rite.”
Of course his performance in this movie is typically brilliant. Father Lucas runs throught an incredible gamut of emotions during the film, and Hopkins portrays all of them both flawlessly and effortlessly. And the stellar performances of both Hopkins and O’Donoghue are really the only redeeming factors in this otherwise stereotypical exorcism film. In the production notes, Hopkins offered some interesting insight into why he liked his character.
“What intrigued me about Father Lucas was wondering what his own position is in the world of theology. He’s a Jesuit, but he’s multi-dimensional. When Michael meets him, he doesn’t know what to make of him because the older priest is just an irascible and impatient man. And when this young man challenges his beliefs, Father Lucas says, ‘Relish your doubts. Nurture them. Be friends with your doubts because those are the things that will drive you on.’ Father Lucas holds doubts of his own, until terrifying things begin to happen to him.”
Now if you go to see this film hoping to be scared to death, forget it because this movie has all the fright power of a ride on the Oglebay trolley. Of course, the film might prove frightening for those who believe in the whole idea behind the movie. Actually there must be something to it because the book upon which the movie is based chronicles the experience of a California priest named Father Gary Thomas, who is the model for Michael in the movie. Thomas is on record as saying that one of the people whom he exorcised was very similar to the Regan portrayed by Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”
Whether or not you believe in demonic possession, “The Rite” (Let’s give it a final score of 4 because of the excellent acting.) is little better than a mediocre film because it drags in places and because the parts that are supposed to be frightening often are laughable instead. Anyone who pays the full price of admission to see this film must be possessed.