Reeling it In: Good acting, creepy plot move 'The Rite'

Posted: Thursday, February 10, 2011

"The Rite"

Ap Photo/New Line Cinema - Warner Bros., Egon Endrenyi
Ap Photo/New Line Cinema - Warner Bros., Egon Endrenyi
In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Pictures, Anthony Hopkins is shown in a scene from "The Rite."


1 hour, 54 minutes

As we left the theater after watching Anthony Hopkins' new exorcism thriller, my wife exclaimed, "I have your lead. Ready?"

"OK ..." I answered.

"'I have seen the devil, and he is the MPAA, for rating 'The Rite' PG-13 and fooling us into going and scaring us half to death!'"

Not bad.

My wife and I have similar ideas about the ridiculousness of the ratings system, but it speaks to a larger trend in scary movies. Of late, as long as a film shows no nudity and little actual gore, it really doesn't matter how disturbing the scenes are -- that movie is getting a PG-13.

That is, of course, in direct contradiction to the trend in serious dramas, wherein it doesn't matter that there is no nudity, gore, or even any violence -- if there's questionable language, that movie is getting an R.

You used to see the PG-13 rating, at least in horror movies, and think, "Well, it can't be too horrifying," but no more. "The Rite" is chock full of terrifying and disturbing scenes, including one in which a writhing pregnant teenager lasciviously propositions a priest before hacking up a handful of crucifixion nails. Yikes.

With all that said, I have to say that my complaint is, yet again, with the MPAA and the inconsistent and hypocritical ratings system, not with "The Rite," itself. The tale of a doubting priest and his experiences with an aging exorcist in Rome is surprisingly good. It's not going to win any Oscars, mind you, but based on the preview, I was expecting a rehash of all the substandard possession movies we've seen over the last few years, each of which try and fail to emulate the granddaddy of them all, "The Exorcist."

Instead, I got a solid thriller with some genuine ideas to ponder -- laudable performances all around, and a considerably creepy plot. Colin O'Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, a priest-in-training who, in lieu of dropping out and leaving the faith, is sent to the Vatican to take part in the Church's newly instituted Exorcism School. This is a real thing, by the way, odd as it sounds.

The story of "The Rite" is supposedly inspired by true events, but, not having read the book it's based on, I can't say how much has been fictionalized. When Kovak, in class, insists on asking uncomfortable or unanswerable questions, his professor priest sends him to see Father Lucas Trevant, a veteran exorcist with somewhat unorthodox methods.

It is at this point that I assumed the film, which had been surprisingly engaging and creepy thus far, would really go off the rails, with Anthony Hopkins chewing the scenery and delivering a cheesy conglomeration of his Van Helsing character from "Dracula" and Hannibal Lecter. In fact, I'd read as much in the scathing critical reviews, but to my surprise, Hopkins' Trevant is a layered, vulnerable, and well constructed character. The aging priest has performed hundreds of exorcisms, and explains to Kovak that it's a time-consuming and laborious process, taking months or years sometimes, to extricate the demons from their victims. After one underwhelming session, he turns to his obviously disappointed protege and says, "What did you expect, spinning heads and pea soup?"

As the film progresses, our hero continues to hold onto his skepticism like a shield, until finally the devil hits close to home and Kovak must decide once and for all what he truly believes. Despite the entertainment value, "The Rite" is still a genre film with the problems that usually go along with those movies.

The end is a little pat and the plot has a little bit of a well-worn feel to it. There are few surprises, other than the occasional jolts designed to make you jump in your seat. But the film is solid, and if you're in the mood for it, a pretty good night out at the movies.

Interestingly, after years of Catholic priests portrayed as predators in the modern era, or corrupt sadists in the previous centuries, "The Rite" is a conspicuously pro-Catholic film. That is not to say that it's propaganda, but the Church and its agents are most definitely the heroes, and the teachings of the faith their most potent weapons.

Most of the time I steer clear of blatantly one-sided media -- songs, movies, books. If you don't agree, the experience is frustrating, and if you do, it's pointless. Often, extremely pro-Christian music or films come across as proselytizing and over-bearing.

Not so with "The Rite," thankfully. The film has a point of view, obviously, but doesn't shy away from alternate views, even allowing super-priest Trevant to admit that he often has doubts. I appreciated that because it makes the character more relatable.

I'd like to think that most of us, even the most zealous among us, have doubts from time to time, questioning the world around us, and evaluating what we truly believe.

That's not sad or wrong, but healthy -- just using the brain that God gave us to think critically. Otherwise, what did he give it to us for?

Grade: B+

"The Rite" is rated PG-13 for grotesque scenes of disturbing possession, sexuality, and brief language. If you want an unvarnished and actually useful tool to decide if a film is right for your child, don't be fooled by the MPAA. Visit, or similar sites, to determine whether a movie's content fits your values.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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