The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of The Rite was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
If you’ve ever wondered just how I determine what star rating to give to a movie, I don’t really have an answer. I wish I could say I had a scientific system that allows me to judge a film on a sliding scale, beginning at four stars and deducting from that point for every egregious sin committed by the filmmaker. Unfortunately, that would never work. There are too many intangibles at play when dealing with films. I hate to sound like the Supreme Court talking about what constitutes pornography, but I know a two star movie when I see one, and The Rite is the epitome of a two star movie.
Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) is a seminary student nearing his graduation. He has yet to take his vows and plans never to. You see, Michael is an idiot. Not wanting to be a mortician like his father (Rutger Hauer), Michael decided to go to study at the seminary, reasoning that being a priest was the only way his father would allow him to go to college. Apparently, he was unaware that, as an adult, he could go to college anyway and pay for it with these magical things called grants, scholarships, and student loans. Anyway, Michael’s grand plan is to go through school on the church’s dime and then refuse to become a priest. Horrified by Michael’s revelation, one of his teachers (Toby Jones), sends him to take a special course at the Vatican.
It seems, in recent years, the Catholic Church has become overwhelmed by exorcism requests from all over the world. The problem has grown so great, a special course has been set up to train a whole new generation of exorcists. Michael quickly gets on the nerves of Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds), the priest teaching the course. To combat Michael’s disbelief in demonic possession, Xavier sends him to work with Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins). Lucas is an experienced exorcist who allows Michael to sit in on his current case, Rosaria (Marta Gastini), a sixteen-year-old girl who is pregnant and has the bad nervous tic of scratching at her head so much that she has formed a bald spot. Lucas is certain that she is possessed, while Michael quickly forms the theory that she has internalized her guilt at becoming pregnant — a diagnosis that seems all the more likely when the father of her baby is revealed.
In a more interesting movie, the ambiguity surrounding Rosaria’s case would have been played with more than it is in The Rite. Unfortunately, director Mikael Håfström is more interested in making a by-the-numbers horror film. This means that Rosaria has to definitely be possessed by a demon, Michael and Lucas have to be put in danger during the numerous exorcism scenes, and Michael and Angeline (Alice Braga) — a reporter covering the new Vatican course — have to find a renewal of their faith in order to defeat the demon.
Despite the attempts at character building with Michael suffering through thoughts of his mother’s death and Lucas admitting that he often is not certain of his faith, the film remains unrelentingly shallow. While the script is mostly to blame for the bland nature of the film, O’Donoghue’s shapeless performance doesn’t help matters. Forget the fact that Hopkins is given top-billing, O’Donoghue is the unchallenged lead of the film, appearing in 95 percent of the scenes. For a man who is supposed to be suffering through a crisis of faith and daddy issues, he never seems to be contemplating anything more than what he’s going to have for lunch. Just following his character — let alone actually caring about what happens to him — quickly becomes a slog.
Meanwhile, Hopkins goes so far over-the-top that he nearly circles around to underplaying Lucas. Giving his character some irreverence to go along with the inherent menace that he brings to nearly every role, Hopkins at least looks like he’s having fun. That’s more than I can say for anyone else in the cast.
Håfström makes the most of his locations, gathering more atmosphere out of the city of Rome than the story deserves. Combined with the solid cinematography by Ben Davis, the production design, and locations make for a handsome looking film. But this craftsmanship is in service of a story that’s lacking in surprises or original ideas.
An overly solemn affair punctuated by the occasional jump scare and stinger on the score, The Rite fails to work as either a horror movie or a religious drama about choosing to believe. It’s not a terrible film, just a boring one.
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