God squad – The Rite review

The Rite – Starring Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue and Alice Braga. Directed by Mikael Håfström. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

Mikael Håfström’s demonic-possession flick The Rite has an interesting credit; perhaps the first of its kind: “Suggested by the book The Rite – The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio”. Suggested by. What does that mean? We all know phrases like “Inspired by true events” or “Based on the book” translate to “This is about 10% true”. But what could we possibly discern from “Suggested by”? The Twilight books may “suggest” young girls should be grateful when their boyfriends hit them and tell them how awful they are, but we can’t just go hire Larry Clark to unofficially reboot the series and claim it was “suggested” by the books of Stephanie Meyer.

So, from those dubious beginnings comes The Rite. Frankly, I’m not all that interested in the veracity of events here. We’ve seen plenty of films about exorcisms before this one, and never before has their supposed authenticity frightened me any more or less. The Exorcist – a movie I will be referring back to pretty regularly, as I’m sure you’ll understand – is not a masterpiece because “OMG, a friend of mine heard from their uncle that he knew someone who used to live across the street from the girl they based Regan on”. It expertly told the story of two priests – one young and lacking in faith, the other old and embattled – forced to confront their spirituality as they peered into the eyes of the devil. That William Friedken was able to imbue this haunting tale with moments of unforgettable terror is but a bonus.

The Rite tells pretty much the same story, without a central possessed girl to act as fulcrum to the fathers’ emotional trials. Colin O’Donoghue stars as Michael Kovak, a dude so unwilling to take over his estranged father’s mortuary, he runs off to the seminary (born to be wiiiiiiiild!). At the end of his degree, the faithless Michael decides not to take his vows. But he doesn’t quite score the degree for free; his superior Father Matthew (Toby Jones) blackmails him into taking an all-expenses-paid exorcism primer in Rome. What can he say? It’s like a HELP-debt of Catholic guilt. In Rome he learns the ins-and-outs of conducting exorcisms (a physician must be present; extensive psychological studies must have been conducted on the patient first) and then meets the unconventional Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), who takes him out of class to show him the ropes, for reals this time.

One of my favourite moments from the original Exorcist is actually in the newly released cut, in which the two fathers sit dejectedly on the staircase after wrestling – unsuccessfully – with Regan’s demons for hours. They share an unspoken moment of defeatism. It’s not that they finally believe in God again because they have witnessed a demon in action (you can’t believe in one without the other, as The Rite boringly reminds us); the ongoing conflict is that they have trouble rationalising a God worth believing in when evil can reign so easily on Earth. The Exorcist faced hard truths. The Rite doesn’t.

Director Håfström’s previous film was the fun rollercoaster ride 1408, but his love of cheeky jump scares does not translate to what should be a mostly dramatic tale of finding one’s faith (the cats literally jumping at the camera seem particularly out of place). Hopkins is fun, but he seems totally intent on disarming any and every scary moment with his matter-of-fact performance (which I liked, but is totally at odds with Håfström’s direction). Frankly, even last year’s surprisingly great horror-comedy The Last Exorcism handled this same story with more affecting pathos.

The Rite won’t be the last movie about exorcisms we ever see – and that’s good, because this is a subgenre worth mining until the end of time – but filmmakers shouldn’t be afraid to try a more serious take on occasion. Håfström and Hopkins have misjudged the picture they’re making, and we’re left with a tonal mishmash that is neither scary nor moving. The over-the-top-but-not-far-enough and ultimately silly scenes of possession don’t help either. In The Exorcist – made 38 years ago mind you – we had a possessed little girl saying horrible, unrepeatable things. Here, one of the worst expletives shared by the demon is the phrase “kissy lips”. Alright then.

2/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

The Rite opens across Australia today.

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