I have a film review of the new exorcism horror film, The Rite, in this week's edition of The Tablet. Below is a taster of the review. For the full review go to The Tablet.
The Rite is a horror film that wants to be taken seriously. Opening with a quotation from Pope John Paul II signals this ambition: “The battle against the Devil, which is the principal task of Saint Michael the Archangel, is still being fought today, because the Devil is still alive and active in the world.”
Inspired by Matt Baglio’s non-fiction book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, the screenwriter, Michael Petroni, claims to anchor his fictional narrative in these documented accounts of demonic possession. Petroni treats the existence of the supernatural realm without any hint of irony. From the outset, The Rite promises real theological intelligence and to be more than a sub genre remake of William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, The Exorcist.
The film’s opening sequence introduces Michael Novak (Colin O’Donoghue), a mortician’s son, who decides to enter seminary instead of becoming a partner in the family firm. As a deacon, Michael comes to believe that his vocation was an escape from his morose father and the fact that he could not afford a college education. He also begins to doubt his own faith and decides to leave. However, the seminary Rector witnesses Michael ministering to a woman fatally wounded in a car accident and impressed by this, persuades him to join a course in Rome that is training a crack team of exorcists.
Here Michael is introduced to a curmudgeonly Welsh Jesuit, Father Lucas Trevant played by Anthony Hopkins. This veteran exorcist may use unconventional methods but his record of success is almost unblemished and his fame has spread across the city. Lucas invites the sceptical deacon to attend the exorcism of a young pregnant woman. As she tears at her scalp and her eyes roll back, Lucas’s mobile phone rings. “I can’t talk now. I’m in the middle of something,” the Jesuit whispers. And when the session comes to an anticlimactic conclusion, Lucas asks Michael, “What did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?” At this point, Michael’s conviction that these phenomena have a psychological explanation remains intact. “Choosing not to believe in the Devil won’t protect you from him,” Lucas warns his novice.
Neither O’Donoghue or Hopkins are able to find convincing priestly identities for their characters. There is never any sense that these priests have an interior spiritual life. The doubts they articulate feel like manufactured add-ons with none of the ambivalence associated with true spiritual struggle. No number of prayers mumbled in Latin can convince us that these men are anything more than clerical caricatures.