In The Rite, Father Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) has some basic questions about his line of work. Like, does he actually believe in God? And if he does believe, does it follow that he believes in the Devil, in Sin, in possession, and in the organization of the world according to a Church doctrine that tends to define morality according to its own needs?
Okay, so Michael doesn’t present his questions in precisely this way, and The Rite doesn’t actually challenge the Church in any way. But such concerns do create a weird and perpetual undercurrent for Mikael Håfström’s film—and contemplating them helps to pass the time as you endure the increasingly obvious and pat surface story.
That story involves Michael’s trip to Rome. A newly ordained but still doubtful priest from Chicago, he’s encouraged to take a two-month exorcism course by his mentor, Father Matthew (Toby Jones). “You’re not squeamish,” observes Matthew, though Michael insists, “I don’t know what I believe.” It’s unclear exactly how Father Matthew concludes that exorcism is Michael’s calling, as he’s announced rather blatantly that he’s only gone to seminary to escape his mortician father (Rutger Hauer, who provides the film’s creepiest and most memorable performance). “In my family,” Michael explains, “You’re either a mortician or a priest.” Right. And that’s another plot point you’ll just have to absorb.
In Rome, Michael finds still more reasons for doubt. While he jokes about the lack of cable in his sparsely furnished room, he’s also duly installed in a regime apart from the unwashed, except when he’s in exorcism class, under the tutelage of Father Xavier (the monumental Ciarán Hinds, whose mere presence should be enough to tip off Michael that he’s in trouble) and alongside journalist Angeline (Alice Braga). (She’s less skeptical than Michael, but seems in place to ensure he will share his thoughts with someone.) Also struck by Michael’s ostensible aptitude, Xavier sends him off to meet Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), renowned for his peculiar but eerily effective exorcisizing strategies.
Before you can say “Max von Sydow” (or maybe, “Mr. Miyagi”), Michael’s watching Father Lucas strap down a beautiful, tragic, and remarkably flexible mother-to-be, Rosaria (Marta Gastini). As she grimaces and rolls her eyes back and contorts with grindy noises, Michael watches with something like horror, though afterwards, he informs Lucas that in fact, there are rational explanations for each seemingly satanic display (she was raped by her father, feels ravaged and guilty, and swallowed four-inch nails in order to spit them out in front of the priests). Thus Rosario becomes the object of Michael and Lucas’ ongoing debate. Though they also visit with a big-eyed boy (Andrea Calligari) who’s also apparently possessed (he has welts made by horse-hooves on his little body, as well as inexplicable knowledge about Michael’s father), it’s the girl—sensuous, fertile, anxiety-making—who embodies their argument.
That argument, of course, tilts between faith and reason. Though Lucas suggests that his rituals and their results don’t rely on Hollywood effects (“What did you expect,” he taunts Michael, “Spinning heads and pea soup?”), in fact they do. Rosario curses them, her veins pop up and her complexion changes, she shows implausible strength, and begs the fathers to save her baby. Lucas also insists that his own belief is a function of a force beyond himself. Though he also once doubted, like Michael, he’s been bothered for years to throw in with the Church by, he says, “Something that kept digging and scraping away inside me, like God’s fingernail.”
Michael doesn’t have a simile of equal power, and so he come back with logic, as well as a cup of coffee from a McDonald’s, beckoning like a siren in a piazza. He’s doomed. As soon as he believes he’s found himself in the crass comforts of the new world, Michael is pulled back into the wacky world of demons and seeming alternatives. Deceptions abound, and the poor humans can only scramble to keep up: as Michael notes, “How do you doubt the devil if he doesn’t exist?” (a permutation of Verbal Klimt’s “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”). That this version of the battle ends in literal knock-down-drag-out fighting in a dark room with thunder booming outside isn’t so much depressing as it is predictable. If the devil is so clever, why aren’t his manifestations at least occasionally original?
The movie is reportedly inspired by the real life experiences of Father Gary Thomas, chronicled in Matt Baglio’s book, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist. But there’s little that’s visibly “modern” here. While Lucas labors to convince Michael of his rightness, the movie loses sight of the journalist Angeline, who might have served a whole other purpose here, a woman who’s not possessed, not sexed-up, and not victimized. Her efforts to sort out her own family puzzle parallel Michael’s, but she’s soon cast as an audience to his struggle, a stand-in for the rest of us, just waiting (and waiting some more) to be convinced of whatever it is he will eventually believe.