Silver Screen: The Rite *

Silver Screen: The Rite  *

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Silver Screen: The Rite *
Bryan Miller

As a non-religious person, it's particularly difficult to work up much of a scare over a movie about exorcism. Partly that's because, when you completely discount something, it's difficult for that thing to be scary-- like Glenn Beck with global warming or Sarah Palin with reading.

Of course, horror movies often make us scared of things we don't believe in (or don't much, not really, except on some lonely nights). But to lend menace to the impossible, horror moviemakers must establish some verisimilitude, something to form a genuine emotional connection to the characters or the setting, to generate real fear from a wholly imaginary threat.

Nearly every movie about exorcism, however, is predicated on the notion that we actually do believe-- not just in God, but also in the Devil. Inevitably, the movie casts a skeptic as the hero, and the thematic arc is that said skeptic must learn to stop being so dadgummed skeptical and just accept the supernatural (a.k.a., rediscover his faith). Some poor pawn in the game between the Notorious G.O.D. and Mephistophelucifersatan has to thrash around and curse and have their eyes look weird, and everyone learns the important lesson to believe in things you cannot see after seeing something you cannot believe-- about which, of course, they wouldn't have been so doubtful in the first place if they'd just witnessed something supernatural, so in that sense the Devil is God's best salesman.

Director Mikael Hafstrom doesn't deviate from this formula much at all in The Rite, which is as familiar, dull, and seemingly endless as a Catholic Mass, but here you have to pay for the refreshments. Our skeptic here is priest-in-training Michael Kovak (the kind-of-boring Colin O'Donoghue), a passive guy with daddy issues who is manipulated by his mortician father (Rutger Hauer, in only a couple of scenes) into entering the priesthood.

The mostly faithless Michael is going to drop out of the Catholic Bureaucracy when he's informed that by doing so he'll default on his scholarship to seminary school and owe tens of thousands of dollars. In exchange, he agrees to go to Italy for two months to study under Father Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), a crusty old fellow who performs exorcisms with the same apparent casualness and frequency with which my mechanic changes sparkplugs.

Michael assists Father Trevant in trying to draw a demon spirit out of a pregnant girl, but the procedure spins out of control. The demon spirit is too wily, and it starts wreaking all manner of havoc, giving Michael unsettling dreams and eventually taking over Father Trevant.

The whole production plays out with leaden inevitability, and at nearly two hours of running time it's particularly punishing. The only brief thrill in the movie is a couple of scenes in which Hopkins, possessed, gets to play creepy, which he does so well. But his menace is actually dispelled by the time the makeup and special effects come into play, and, as with almost all exorcism movies, the big finale is a guy in a white collar shouting some words at somebody else rolling around on a floor/bed. Cue speech about how this all happened for a reason, said reason being to teach our skeptic a lesson... and roll credits.

Speaking of the credits, it's noted therein that The Rite is based on a book. Not the Book, but a book-- and not a novel, either, but a nonfiction account of the true events on which the film is based, so I guess this stuff is all true, and scary. My critical/analytical bad.