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The Rite is the latest of at least a dozen widely released American movies in half as many years with demonic possession a major plot-point. This doesnt mean the subject is wrung outits continuing resonance with audiences hasnt been effaced by secular pop psychology or modernization within the church. It does, though, mean that any new attempt must come with a hook.
For one: Prefaced with a quote from Pope John Paul II, The Rite, set in a specifically Catholic milieu, courts believers. Also, in the character of Father Lucas, it introduces the exorcist as a workaday, house-calls healer. (As Lucas, Anthony Hopkins is disarmingly distracted, softly authoritative, and given to prancing when the role takes a bipolar turn.) Whatd you expect? Spinning heads, pea soup? he asks a novice, young Michael Kovak (Colin ODonoghue), who has just witnessed Lucass offhand bedside mannerhe breaks from casting out demons to take a phone calland the priests defiance of evil, grown almost into a casual rivalry through the years.
Michael, whose initiation into exorcism propels the plot, is introduced working in his familys mortuary in a small-town, dead-end America shown in a few shorthand shots. Needing a ticket out, he chooses seminary school, despite having no apparent surplus of faith or zeal. Four Years Later, still not having developed the required vocational feeling, hes ready to leave, but is talked into visiting Rome for a trial run in an exorcist-training program. Here, Michael begins his apprenticeship to Lucas, a Welsh Jesuit tending to the daily exorcism needs of Roman families. Watching Lucas on his rounds, Michael clings to his doubt, even when viewing a contorted patient who plays a game of Twister without the mat, becomes fluently profane in foreign tongues, and coughs up iron nails.
Providing the title and the Based on True Events license for The Rite is a book by Matt Baglio, documenting the initiation of fiftysomething Reverend Gary Thomas of Los Altos, California, as an exorcist. Thomas and Baglio apparently werent a sufficient box-office duo, so the film introduces Michael to Angeline (Alice Braga), a journalist investigating exorcism whos sitting in on one of his classes, where they begin dialogue and mild flirtationone of several reassurances to the viewer that celibate Michael is totally (theoretically) heterosexual.
Initial efforts to de-familiarize the material stop well before Michael has stepped up for his part in a climactic spiritual tug-of-warwith no pea soup, but its own 21st-century schlock f-x. ODonoghue, up to this point a functional protagonist, darkly handsome in a clerical collar, doesnt demonstrate the authority to throw someone out of his house, much less dispel Satans minions. His opponent is every bit his lightweight match. Depending on ones prejudices, belief in demonology may be thought adolescent; as finally manifest in The Rite, demons are literally juvenile. Affecting a Valley-girl inflection, remembering Michael as a little boy pooping in his pants, and mocking his crush on Angelinein words carefully within the bounds of a PG-13 ratingMichaels nemesis comes off as a nasty older sister.
Director Mikael Håfströms foot-dragging pace makes a pretense of intent character study, but Michaels spiritual trials are occluded by Michael Petronis patchy screenplay. As Michael clings to his skepticism before manifestations of the inexplicable, The Rite never brings the viewer onto his seesaw of doubtdisorientation that sustained The Last Exorcisms suspense. Michaels own demons are suggested via flashbacks of a walking-dead father (Rutger Hauer), a literally dead mother, and the undertakers slab. He is surrounded by corpsesnot just in his familys mortuary, but also in a freak car accident he witnessesbut these are audience-goosing shocks, illuminating no ideas on the hereafter, divine causality, or any detail of sinister ambiguity in ODonoghues featureless performance. Michaels motivations remain arbitrary and inscrutable, right down to his entry into the seminary. This is brought up by a number of characters, who interpret his implausible career decision as A Sign. It isof bad writing.
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