Swedish director Mikael Håfström’s The Rite is not so much a horror film, as much a film about horror. Belonging to a long line of Hollywood movies that deal with demonic possessions and exorcisms, something that came into vogue after William Friedkin’s
horror masterpiece The Exorcist and has remained in fashion since, The Rite is thankfully closer to that 1973 seminal classic and the recent The Exorcism Of Emily Rose in terms of content and style than the paint-by-numbers slashing-gashing variety of gory horror films the genre has spewed.There isn’t any head-spinning or projectile-vomiting that takes place in the two hours plus running length of The Rite. No horror-film staple boo moments either. Instead, there is a sense of ominous dread brought about by effective production design which creates an eerie sense of atmosphere out of seemingly benign ambiences like a suburban Italian middleclass dwelling or a Roman countryside home. The latter is the abode of Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), a master exorcist to whom young novitiate Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue, a quiet confident debut) is dispatched to observe and learn the art and practice of exorcising.
Michael is a skeptic who chooses seminary over following in the footsteps of his undertaker father (Rutger Hauer, surprisingly effective). Michael’s ambivalence with faith and his spirit of enquiry make him the audience’s proxy. So when Michael questions his lecturer at the Vatican Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds) about the thin line that separates perceived demonic possession from mental imbalance; his query echoes our thoughts. Egging Michael to explore and find the ‘truth’ is journalist Angeline (Alice Braga), who despite fulfilling the obligatory female role in the film, thankfully doesn’t end up becoming the romantic interest.
It is such little touches respecting the audience’s intelligence that separates The Rite from just another Hollywood genre product. Take for instance the first exorcism that Michael observes. Not only is there an absolute absence of horror-film accoutrements like a ratcheted background score or moody lighting, but even more interestingly, Father Lucas takes a call on his cellular phone right in the middle of the ritual! Watching Anthony Hopkins enact this scene is all the more hilarious as it adds a lovely layer of self-effacing humour to the proceedings where Hopkins literally takes a break from ‘acting’ to answer a phone call.
And is all exorcism merely ‘acting’? Is it just a performance? A performer wrapped in a cassock with his little bag of tricks! Father Lucas exorcizes a supposedly possessed little boy by pulling a frog out of the boy’s bedside pillow and casting it away. Michael can’t help but feel that Father Lucas is offering placebo pills. And we feel the same as well when a 16 year old pregnant girl (Marta Gastini, fantastic), evidently raped by her father, is made to undergo exorcism rituals in order to force the demon out of her when she obviously needs psychological treatment for getting over the internalized guilt and torment of carrying her own father’s child.
It is a tragedy that in the final quarter of an hour the film slips into seen-before territory, a compromise brought about obviously due to market considerations. Still, the fact that this compromise allows Hopkins to unleash operatic levels of acting makes it forgivable... and a guilty pleasure in fact.The Rite is a discussion on horror and the nature of evil… at one point comparing the devil to a burglar whose primary objective while looting you is to have you sound asleep in the fake assurance that he doesn’t exist! Don’t go looking for thrills and chills in this one. The fear here is amped not by cinematic devices mean to induce fright but by the knowledge that the narrative is inspired by true events.