The Rite Dir. Mikael Håfström

[Warner Bros.; 2011]

Styles: horror
Others: 1408, The Exorcist

The horror film genre has always provided clever filmmakers with the opportunity to plant subversive messages under a formulaic veneer of shocks and chills. Tod Browning, James Whale, and Jacques Tourneur were among the first directors to take advantage of their B-movie material, often showing compassion for societal outsiders by making the “monsters” more sympathetic and even more human than the so-called heroes. In The Exorcist, William Friedkin not only created the sub-genre of demonic possession films, but turned it into a not-so-subtle commentary about an aging, male-dominated establishment’s fear of female sexuality. While more contemporary directors have managed to build on the achievements of the now-classic horror tropes, Friedkin’s movie has so dominated its subject matter that later films have rarely gone beyond either rehashing the original or straightforward sermonizing on the existence of evil in the world. Thus, when presented with Matt Baglio’s non-fiction book detailing his own encounter with real-life exorcists and subsequent renewal of his Catholic faith, Swedish filmmaker Mikael Håfström manages to take a small step out of Friedkin’s shadow by questioning the Catholic Church’s resistance to reform in The Rite.

As the son of a devout Catholic mortician, Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donaghue) has two choices in life: follow in his father’s footsteps or go to college to become a priest. He chooses the latter, though his heart is never quite in the pulpit. Considering dropping out, he is given another choice: go to Rome to participate in the Church’s exorcist training program or be faced with $100,000 in unpaid tuition for failing to meet the terms of his seminary scholarship. Despite being in the holiest place on earth and attending state-of-the-art lessons in demonology, Michael still finds himself skeptical towards the notion of higher powers. To open his mind, he is told to a visit an eccentric Welsh exorcist, Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins). He witnesses Trevant treat a pregnant teenager afflicted by a vindictive demon, but finds himself plagued by doubts, despite the occurrences that defy rational explanation. He eventually decides the whole business is just a literal bag of tricks, but by this time, the demon seems to have moved on to Father Trevant. Michael is thus faced with his final choice: commit to a life of faith and save the old man’s soul, or to hell with the both of them.

Resisting the horror trend of the past decade, Håfström opts for a more psychological atmosphere of dread as opposed to a gore-induced terror. Indeed, in what seems like a comic riff on the overt theme of science versus religion in the film, the most graphic scenes come in the opening sequence, which depicts Michael embalming a young woman in his father’s funeral home. Death is gruesome, yet also removed and scientific, unlike the demon who assaults the insecurities of the psyche. The film also includes a modified version of the Freudian primal scene, as throughout the movie Michael has flashbacks of his father preparing his mother’s corpse for her funeral. The memory of his mother’s death serves as another ghost or demon figure in the film, the pivotal event at which Michael literally destroyed his faith.

Michael’s inability to let go of his own shattered faith somewhat ironically parallels the Church’s own inability to change. For instance, the jump cut as Michael wanders through the basilica to find a thoroughly contemporary room shows the willingness to incorporate technology when it serves one needs. As Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds) uses a state of the art touchpad to flip through images of demons during his class, it’s hard not to note the contrast between the updated surroundings and the antiquated depictions of evil. Moreover, the girl Trevant subjects to an exorcism seems like a clear candidate for an abortion, having been raped by her father. The demons, it seems, serve to point out the shortcomings of modern Catholicism. If anything, though, Håfström gets too caught up in the primary battle of science and religion. The debate about faith often verges on the tedious, though Hopkins is skilled enough at tongue-in-cheek to often carry it out.

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