It would seem that belief — especially religious belief — is a subtle and messy thing, despite the efforts of those who seem to want to classify it into a simple binary up-or-down vote. But surely the adherents of a religion must have this belief stuff down, no? You surely can’t be, say, a priest and harbor doubts — especially not grave ones — about your belief.
Well, unfortunately for the simplifiers that’s not strictly true. As a wiser writer than I put it, there’s a long way from “Adonai” to “I deny”, and it isn’t even a nice straight line from one to the other. In particular, there is a huge swath of modernist, intellectual Catholicism (I can already hear the screeches that this is an oxymoron and that I’m some other sort) which manages to embrace a solidly agnostic position — that theological truth is inherently unknowable — alongside faith. It’s been called the mark either of insanity or of a first-class intelligence to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. Maybe both are right, but to wave this position away as nonexistent is as insulting and dismissive as it is conveniently simple.
In either case, it’s a mark in favor of The Rite that it is comfortable living in the midst of this position. Yes, it’s an exorcism movie, and yes, that means that when it breaks it will break towards belief in the existence of demonic possession. But it spends the bulk of its time leaving those questions unresolved.
Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) is a seminarian studying for the priesthood when he experiences a serious crisis of faith. The Father Superior of his seminary pleads for him not to give up. He notices Michael’s serious demeanor and steadiness in the face of unpleasantness, both picked up working in his father’s funeral home. These, he thinks, make Michael a prime candidate for a course held at the Vatican to re-teach the rite of exorcism.
So it’s off to Rome where the instructor, Fr. Xavier (Ciarán Hinds), picks up on Michael’s doubts. He suggests Michael meet with an old friend, Fr. Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), who still conducts exorcisms in the outskirts of Rome.
Fr. Lucas is, appropriately enough, a Jesuit who has had his own spotty history with his faith. He explains of long stretches with no idea what he really believes in, stretching on and scratching at him “like God’s fingernail” inside, until he feels inexorably compelled to carry on whether he believes or not at that point.
He shows Michael the day-to-day practice of an exorcist, which is often more like that of a therapist than anything else. And it’s never clear that a therapist isn’t what these people really need. Even with his hardest case, Rosaria (Marta Gastini), there are only a couple moments that can’t be explained away as a psychotic break and some parlor tricks. But conversely, if her psychosis manifests as a belief in possession, wouldn’t the rite of exorcism work as well as many other forms of psychotherapy practiced the world over?
Of course, as such movies are bound to play out, Fr. Lucas falls victim to the very fate he struggles against, and Michael is left to come to his rescue. Hopkins really shines in these segments, drawing from the manic, over-the-top Shakespearean style on display in Titus (and that I’m hoping to see bits of in Thor) while blending it with the cunning mind-games of a Hannibal Lecter. He takes full advantage of his chance to run all up and down his range, and it’s great fun to see him at work.
For that matter, Gastini makes a great splash of her own in her American movie debut. She shows how she can take an extreme character and run with it. If she can come back and play subtler roles well, she’ll have quite a career ahead.
On the other hand, Alice Braga is more or less wasted as Angelina, an Italian journalist investigating the exorcism class. I can see the need to have someone in the role of a foil, but the character feels very weak next to Michael’s. Some gestures are made towards why she’s interested in the first place, but she never feels very fleshed-out at all.
And this points to the way the script as a whole starts strong with a great core, and then peters out into a genre exercise halfway through. But even if it ends up as a straightforward exorcism movie, it’s a very well-made one. And it does at least break some new ground at the outset, which is more than can be said for most genre movies.
Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: fail.