The Devil in Film: The Rite (2011)

We are about to embark on two new series here at Image of Truth. The first, “The Devil in Film,” will explore the portrayal of Satan throughout notable films in which he or his demonic minions are central to the plot. Essentially, with a few exceptions, these will be analyses of the most notable possession/exorcism films of the film era, as this is the most common and potent way Satan is portrayed on screen. We will also later launch into “Jesus in Film,” hopefully in time for Easter, in which we will look at the foremost films on the life of Christ. We will start our series “The Devil in Film” with the latest incarnation, 2011’s most notable supernatural drama so far, The Rite.

The Rite starts off with the preparation of a dead body in a funeral parlor and instantly gives the audience member a warning of what the film could be: a gore-fest of things we really don’t want to see, with perhaps an exorcism simply as the vehicle for which these gruesome items occur. Thankfully, this macabre beginning turns out to be misleading, and the film becomes one of the smartest and most theologically thought-provoking horror films (if one can call it a horror film) in several years. The film follows the story of a mortician’s son named Michael (Colin O’Donoghue). Somewhat distant from his father (Rutger Hauer), Michael enters Catholic seminary. Although a skeptic who questions the Catholic faith, he hopes to, at the very least, achieve a free degree from the process, then drop out before full ordination as a priest.

Three years later, we see Michael being ordained as a deacon and putting in his resignation to his advisor, Father Matthew (Toby Jones). After an accident, where Father Matthew witnesses Michael gives the last rites to a pleading, dying woman, Matthew is convinced that Michael should be a priest and convinces him to take an exorcism course in Rome. During the course, the teacher, Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds), notes Michael’s skepticism and sends him to observe a well-seasoned exorcist, Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins). Meanwhile, Michael comes into contact with another listener in the class, Angeline (Alice Braga), a reporter investigating the resurgence of exorcisms in the Catholic Church. As Michael’s doubt and faith are equally tested by his experiences in Rome, his ultimate fate may lie in the balance.

I cannot tell how surprisingly impressed I was with this film. The central themes of this piece are faith and doubt.  In fact, the film could be considered to be faith-based to a fault, if the viewer is not affiliated with some sort of faith background.  It has been noted elsewhere that Catholic reviewers liked the film much better than film reviewers as a whole.  The film rawly confronts growing up with a religious attachment, yet facing the struggle to root one’s self in the actual core of that faith. The Rite deals passionately with the reality of doubt and even living with faith and doubt constantly coinciding. The film rightly exposes the devil’s tactic of playing on the disbelief of humans, rather than exposing himself in broad daylight, and his use of our unbelief in his attempt to bring us down. The Protestant viewer is likely to disagree with the film’s depiction of Christian believers becoming possessed (however, some of those same might also regard the the portrayed Catholics as unbelievers, so we’ll just leave this one be for the moment). This is expected from the point of view of the film, and enlivens a bit of the post-viewing discussion as a whole.

The scenes of exorcism are much subtler on a whole (with perhaps a couple of exceptions at the climax), and therefore actually more believable. Combined with exceptional visuals of Rome and some great supporting performances by the likes of the always reliable Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and Rutger Hauer (three vastly underrated actors), the lead performances are well played. Even Anthony Hopkins, who is always enjoyable but also always tends to chew the scenery in eccentric portrays, is wonderfully understated as the old hermit exorcist. The moods of the film really capture the moodiness of a European horror and the ancient-world refinery one would expect of a film on Catholicism set in Rome.

In the end, the whole of the film travels new ground in the the subgenre of exorcism film and provides provoking thoughts and questions into the struggle between faith, doubt, and the realities of the spirit world.

The Rite (2010), 113 min.
Production: New Line Cinema, Contrafilm, Fletcher & Company
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Rutger Hauer
Director: Mikael Håfström
Screenwriters: Mike Baglio and Michael Petroni
Producers: Beau Flynn, Tripp Vinson
Executive producers: Richard Brener, Merideth Finn, Robert Bernacchi
Director of photography: Ben Davis
Production designer: Andrew Laws
Editor: David Rosenbloom
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli
Music: Alex Heffes

(Illustration: still from The Rite)