The Rite    
Directed by Mikael Håfström   
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue   
113 minutes

Based on the book The Rite: The making of a modern day exorcist, by Matt Baglio, The Rite is a film that was always going to be the film that isn’t The Exorcist. Comparisons are inevitable. Exorcism is a subject that’s had its fair share of cinematic incarnations: some creepy, some weird, some shocking and some just plain ridiculous.

It has been said that the greatest trick the devil ever played on the world was to convince people he didn’t exist. At its heart, The Rite deals with the existence of evil and a young man’s struggle to understand his vocation in spite of it. Or, perhaps, because of it.

Michael Kovak is a young seminarian who isn’t sure what he believes and has doubts about his calling to the priesthood. When he is sent to Rome to study the ancient rite of exorcism under a special program instituted by the Vatican he is mentored by experienced exorcist Fr Lucas (Anthony Hopkins). Having a reputation for being unorthodox, Fr Lucas has performed thousands of exorcisms and is drawn to Michael because he recognizes in him something of himself.

Michael’s stubbornness and doubt over the effectiveness of the ancient and controversial rite leads him to question Fr Lucas and his methods suspecting that the people he is treating, although clearly disturbed, “need a shrink not a priest”. When Michael runs into journalist Angeline, who is taking the exorcism course as research for an article, she persuades him to share his experiences with her.

In search of the truth, Michael and Angeline hope to discover once and for all whether there is a reasonable, scientific explanation for the seemingly inexplicable things they see or whether there is in fact a more sinister, supernatural cause. As their investigation intensifies they find themselves in increasing danger and quickly discover that “choosing not to believe in the devil won’t protect you from him”.

The Rite sits on the supernatural-horror scale somewhere between William Friedkin’s 70s supernatural tour de force The Exorcist – which tested the boundaries of taste and decency by succeeded in being banned in every God-fearing country under the sun (and then, somewhat ironically, was added to the Vatican’s recommended list alongside It’s A Wonderful Life) – and the studied restraint of The Exorcism of Emily Rose which played out like a courtroom drama, pitting science against faith, arguing the point that it’s actually not such a wonderful life at all really, if you’re possessed.

As traditional Hollywood horror fare goes The Rite doesn’t buck any trends, it’s not satisfied with simply (and effectively) capturing a genuinely creepy situation on camera but insists on dramatizing it further with atmospheric music and audio cues that signpost the scares. So an innocuous scene involving nothing apparently untoward becomes “Aaargh, what’s that? Oh, it’s just a cat”.

This kind of stunt is consistently relied upon in Hollywood because the audience is basically paying to be scared and studios tend to take the “let’s make em’ jump” approach. This is a shame because it’s a cop-out which favors the knee-jerk reaction, using cheap tricks to make us spill our popcorn, as opposed to the more subtle approach which favours the “hey, why don’t we sleep with the light on tonight, honey?” reaction.

One critic referred to The Rite as an “old fashioned chill-fest” which doesn’t offer anything original or particularly exciting for genre hardened audiences, which is fair enough. 2007’s Paranormal Activity really raised the bar in terms of what is scary and how to scare; the idea of setting up CCTV cameras to record “actual events” with a Blair Witch Project-style, found-footage type of realism really got under the public’s skin.

A handful of Hollywood horror conventions aside, Fr Gary Thomas (on whom the character of Michael Kovak is loosely based) praised the film for showing the power and importance of faith in the battle against evil in the world and was on hand as an advisor to the production team to help them get the exorcism scenes just right. They were “very accurate”, he said, allowing for a generous degree of cinematic licence to make the film as entertaining and accessible as possible.

In recording events for his book, Baglio apparently witnessed over 20 exorcisms which Fr Thomas performed and his experiences, throughout the process of writing the book and during their ongoing friendship, helped Baglio to “reconnect to the Church and understand the value of faith”.

In a recent interview with the Catholic Herald, Anthony Hopkins spoke of how he couldn’t “live with the certainty” atheists seem to live with. “I wonder about some of them: why are they protesting so much? How are they so sure of what is out there? And who am I to refute the beliefs of so many great philosophers and martyrs all the way down the years?”

Speaking of how his own beliefs informed his interpretation of Fr Lucas, Hopkins said that, like his character, he isn’t sure what he believes. “I don’t know if I believe in God, Santa Claus or Tinkerbell! But I do feel this scratch of God’s fingernail and I am cast from the darkness back into the light”. 

As expected, the spirit of The Exorcist possesses The Rite but Halfstom does his best to exorcise it, managing to strike an entertaining balance between a moody supernatural thriller and a “based on true events” dramatization. The Rite probably won’t convert any atheists or win any Oscars but it demonstrates the redeeming power of faith and suggests that, in a culture of faithlessness, uncertainty is often the only absolute.

Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.

Ronan Wright is a graduate in Film Studies from The Queen’s University of Belfast. As well as contributing to MercatorNet as a film critic since March 2011 he has run Filmplicity, a Belfast-based film...