by Mel Valentin
It’s been almost forty years since "The Exorcist," a collaboration between novelist-screenwriter William Peter Blatty and filmmaker William Friedkin ('Bug," "Rules of Engagement," "To Live and Die in L.A.," "Sorcerer," "The French Connection") arrived in movie theaters around the country. The mix of self-consciously serious theological discussion and visceral, supernatural horror made Blatty’s novel a bestseller and a critical favorite. Blatty’s close involvement as screenwriter guaranteed an audience, a mix of believers and non-believers, for the big-screen adaptation. "The Exorcist," the rare big-budget horror film to receive critical acclaim, including Academy Award nominations, was the first, and by every indication, the last, word on the subject of Roman Catholic exorcisms. Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell Warner Bros. executives or the filmmakers behind "The Rite," an “Exorcist” for the 21st century that offers few of the visceral or intellectual thrills of Blatty’s novel or adaptation.Directed by Mikael Håfström (Shanghai, 1408, Derailed, Drowning Ghost, Evil), The Rite claims to be “inspired by true events,” but the usage of that phrase should predispose moviegoers to doubting almost everything they’re about to see and hear. Loosely based on Matt Baglio’s non-fiction book, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, The Rite focuses on a fourth-year seminary student, Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue), who’s lost his faith in a Christian (or, to be more accurate, Roman Catholic) God. A senior priest, Father Matthew (Toby Jones), convinced of Michael’s potential as a priest, convinces Michael to travel to Rome where, under the guidance of another priest, Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds), he’ll learn about the ins and outs of exorcism, presumably with Michael, faith restored, becoming a practicing exorcist in a parish (exorcists are apparently in short supply relative to need).
"The Exorcist by any other name is still the Exorcist."
In Rome, Father Xavier passes off the still doubtful, still doubting Michael (he should have been called Thomas) to an unorthodox priest, Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins). A practicing exorcist, the Wales-born Father Lucas also has a medical degree, necessary or so we’re told, to dispel concerns about the mental and emotional states of the demonically possessed. Father Lucas assures Michael that he first attempts to find a medical, psychiatric explanation (cue the familiar conflict between faith and reason, science and religion) before accepting demonic possession. Father Lucas invites Michael to witness and assist in the exorcism of a pregnant, 16-year-old girl, Rosaria (Marta Gastini). Michael suspects sexual abuse, but over the course of several visits (exorcisms can take weeks, if not months), he gradually becomes convinced that Rosaria is, in fact, possessed by a dangerous demon (as if there was any doubt).
That leaves The Rite to cover overly familiar territory as Father Lucas and the doubting, distrustful Michael struggle to exorcise Rosaria’s demon in an underlit, under-furnished attic (the better to establish The Rite’s spooky mood and atmosphere). Michael’s past, haunted by the death of his mother and a fraught relationship with his mortician father, Istvan (Rutger Hauer), add complications to Michael’s character arc. An attractive journalist, Angelina (Alice Braga), functions both as a “last temptation” for Michael (he hasn’t taken his vows yet) and a sounding board for his oft-repeated doubts about Father Lucas, exorcism in general, and his own spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof). Like The Exorcist, The Rite culminates with Michael fighting the demon alone that involves a plot twist better left non-described (but hinted at in the TV ads and the trailers).Running close to two hours and ten minutes, "The Rite" is nothing if not exhausting, not to mention exhausting. Håfström spends a considerable amount of time early on filling in Michael’s backstory (he’s a mortician-turned-seminarian), his relationship with his father, and the religious doubts that almost lead to his resignation before taking him (and us) to Rome, followed by more exposition before we finally meet Father Lucas. That languid, enervated pacing is symptomatic to Håfström’s reverent approach to the subject matter, but it also ensures moviegoer disinterest until the next exorcism scene. That Håfström and his screenwriter, Michael Petroni, give the demon access to modern taunts filled with pop-culture references doesn’t help either in what, ultimately, feels like a waste of time, energy, and effort (because it is), a pale imitation of a story we’ve seen before, better, more economically, more engrossingly told by better filmmakers.
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originally posted: 01/28/11 00:15:22