The story of a young priest who is questioning his faith, but realizes the existence of evil when called to perform an exorcism, The Exorcist- oops, I mean, The Rite, offers viewers a less scary, anodyne version of what they’ve seen before. Hooray for Hollywood!
The center of the story is Lucas Trevant, a priest and full time exorcist living in Rome and played by the great Anthony Hopkins. The selling point of the movie is seeing Hopkins possessed by the Devil, but he’s equally good as a man of faith pulled towards the light of God by an inner conviction. Hopkins could read the telephone book and make it interesting, but most of his dialogue is sharp and engaging; he does, however, call another character “kissy lips” at one point.
The character who is supposed to bring us into the story via identification, however, is much less interesting. Michael, a young seminary student, played by Colin O’Donoghue, has entered the priesthood in order to please his father (the very busy Rutger Hauer), but has second thoughts. Lots of second thoughts. He is the character who doubts the existence of God due to his misguided faith in scientific reason. There’s one of these characters in every exorcism movies it seems and they always learn their lesson. Reason is always treated as wrongheaded in these movies in a way that’s more than a bit reactionary: the characters are saved by faith and destroyed by reason, which are taken as being at odds with one another, and there’s a certain type of evangelical American who has to be the target audience here. However, plenty of religious people are also questioning and curious in the real world.
The real problem with Michael is that he’s a bit too much like us: too lazy to learn any Italian or Latin, which makes the special assignment he’s received, to learn the art of exorcism in the Vatican and perform them in Rome, more than a bit absurd; he’s also sarcastic and hip, horny for a female reporter (Alice Braga); and even though he’s supposed to be questioning his choice to enter the seminary, he doesn’t seem remotely religious or even particularly bright. I kept expecting the character to say something like, “Dude, this possession shit is not sweet!” Really, the character is just not believable.
What’s frustratingly tantalizing about The Rite is that this is Hollywood and they have the bucks, so there are plenty of compelling visuals. A mule with red eyes is particularly effective. I also liked the possessed characters spitting up nine inch crucifixion nails. The cinematography is crisp and clear and visually beautiful, and the sets are great stand-ins for Rome (the film was shot in Hungary and Italy). The one exception is the somewhat goofy sets representing the Vatican lecture halls, which look like CIA headquarters.
But the problem with Hollywood is that they’ve become utterly gutless, which impacts the film in two ways. In the first place, they’ve clearly aimed at getting a PG-13 rating here (a bigger audience!), so the film is basically bloodless and the obligatory shocking language of the demon-possessed is along the lines of “you are disgusting and smell”. Your mother sews socks that smell, indeed.
A bigger problem caused by Hollywood’s gutlessness is that the movie is safely homogeneous and uncreative: it’s pretty close to being The Exorcist, but a less challenging, basically toothless version. The Exorcist is a horror masterpiece, in my opinion, and a genuine work of art. I actually like its sequels, with the exception of Renny Harlan’s prequel; I’m one of the very few who likes The Exorcist II. The problem that the other movies in the exorcism genre have, though, is that they’re rooted in a specific religious rite, and so they tend to follow a rigid formula. The twist here is that, yes, there’s a young girl possessed but also a priest, isn’t much of a twist. When the young priest is shouting, “God compels you!” at the demon, it’s impossible not to think of Jason Miller. And this is what’s so frustrating for many of us about Hollywood at this point: tremendous artistry goes into these movies that are just retreads of what’s come before. And why? Because chicken shit accountants are calling all the shots at the big studios. So a film that repeats The Exorcist can get made, but a film as singular and original as the actual Exorcist? Not a chance.