by Richard von Busack
That girl-power answer to St. Michael, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar) once described something that “gave her the wig,” ventriloquist dummies. The rest of the show’s cast leaned in expectantly, thinking they were going to hear about the time she battled a devil doll. Buff shook her head: “There’s no story about it. They just give me the wig.”
Among Catholics, and there’s a lot of them around, nothing is as reliably wiggy as the Devil voice; there’s no story behind it, it just gives them the wig. Movie after movie is released about some possessed unfortunate: barking in baritone, slandering dead relatives, and describing terrible sins you committed, while cackling in that smoke-seasoned kind of voice usually heard at Eddie’s Rascal Room at 2AM.
You could, of course, just spoil Satan’s fun by agreeing with him. (“Yeah, I did all that stuff. And what’s more, you made me do it, too, so what of it?”) But logic is usually outside the province of the exorcist movie, even an exorcist movie lite like The Rite, full of reasonable explanations and a fragrant, even Pinterian, performance by Anthony Hopkins.
It’s based, lightly, on the career of Fr. Gary Thomas of San Jose, as recorded in Matt Baglio’s non-fiction book. From the eyesoffaith.blog an interview; Fr. Gary sounds like a reasonable man, and if I start belching Anderson’s and screaming in Aramaic I’ll certainly take my custom to him.
Director Mikhal Halfstrom starts out with some keen mood-setting nastiness: the preparation in tight closeup of a cadaver at a mortuary. A clump of horsehair is stuffed into a dead woman’s mouth to make her cheeks look natural, and the wicked curved needles doing their work.
What better way to set the stage for the essential purpose of religion, the timor mortis? Moreover the exterior shots of a nameless, grim and moribund Midwestern town keep up the dolefulness: here, the only certain living is sewing up suicides, such as this particular woman.
We know we haven’t heard the last of the deceased; she had a li’l baby devil tattoo on her ankle, so Satan will know his own. Suicides go to hell, says this picture; maybe they should have staked her heart and buried her at the crossroads.
But there is some life around here; a scene a bar with a flirtatious bar girl handing out a couple of free beers. Halfstrom establishes the real-manhood of Michael (Colin O’Donohue, green and board-stiff). He has decided on the priesthood in the same way that a young man would decide to join the army: as a way out, to a world where things are alive.
Four years later, he’s graduating the seminary with a mountain of debts and a hillock of doubts. The profane old father superior (five very good minutes with Toby Jones) reminds Michael he’ll be paying up those student loans pronto if he doesn’t go into the church. Thus, the elder man decides Michael needs is a chance to see Satan’s deeds up close: he’s to take up residency at the Vatican’s new exorcism school.
(It’s way above my pay grade to speculate on this matter, but does the new found need for demon-evictors has anything to do with the inroads being made by protestants? Particularly among the humble poor Latin American people who tend to get bedeviled?
From storefront churches to suburban megamall cathedrals, hundreds of protestant sects are performing exorcisms. And essential to the Catholic church’s eons-long success is its ability to find needs and fill them. And we’re assured from dialogue in The Rite that 500,000 people a year are getting devil-ridden…so it’s a growth industry.)
The Rite refocuses in Rome. Very nice shot of the Coliseum; one of those toy-sized taxis they have over there is seen, stern first, driving toward the background, shrinking to make way for a reveal of the glory that was, etc.
The Vatican’s exorcism school is a marble subterranean headquarters that would do justice to a Bond villain, complete with world-dominating motto in gold letters (St. Anselm’s “Credo Ut Intelligum,” “I believe to understand”). Teaching the class is Father Xavier, played by Ciaran Hinds, of trustworthy square head and rumbling voice; he should be doing loads of narration work if he isn’t already.
Michael gets plenty of attention from the teacher, not because of the deepness of his faith, but because of him being the American in the movie. Thus he’s sent to Father Lucas, a cracked male cat-lady of an exorcist, played by the one and only Anthony Hopkins.
As seen in Richard Burton’s performance in The Exorcist II: The Heretic, the devil dreads a Welshman. Hopkins, so virile yet so feline, potters around half-listening to the male ingénue’s problems, taunting him nicely about his lack of faith with plenty of the “ahs” he used in on stage in Equus and elsewhere (“Ah, that. Yes. Certainly.”). All that sad hemming and hawing that made Hopkins’ name as an actor….before Jonathan Demme got him a job as the Prince of Darkness and proved that Hopkins had a body underneath that mourning, perennially hangdog head.
Fortunately, Michael the skeptic arrived at the right time, to watch Lucas cast a devil out of a poor and pregnant 16 year old (Marta Gastini, quite affecting). The work is different we’ve seen in other exorcism movies. Like therapy it takes a long time. And of course the patient has to want to change.
The process includes a risky but terrific gag about being interrupted during a key moment in the devil casting. Watching Hopkins circle the possessed girl, one marvels: Silence of the Lambs was 20 years ago…has he changed appreciably?
And of course Hopkins gets to ride an arc, as has been made clear by The Rite’s previews, demonic possession being apparently the possible lot of the professional exorcist.
The establishment of this haywireness has something of Nicholas Ray in it: Lucas seen in silhouette, viewing the Eternal City in the morning in an Italian priests’ cassock and pizza-plate hat. A child who asks for a blessing interrupts him. She’s given a nice big one. (This is The Rite’s biggest shock). Lucas is later discovered by Michael sitting in a courtyard in the rain, his legs bare: he was in his bathrobe all along.
It’s effrontery for Hopkins to put some King Lear into this exorcism movie, but who could complain? Reciting Latin invocations, Hopkins rolls every syllable. I’m used to hearing elder Catholics moan about the replacement of the Latin liturgy with something ordinary people can understand. Listening to the cascade of dead language coming off of Hopkins’ tongue, I finally understood their loss.
The Roman cityscapes aren’t prettified; there’s irritating Vespas and larcenous looking crowds and a big profane McDonalds’ (product placement? In this kind of movie?) Alice Braga (who is improving as an actress) gets squeezed into the film as a girl reporter; but not much sticks in the mind besides Hopkins’ own whirlwind of acting. Compared to Hopkins, even the eldritch Rutger Hauer (here as Michael’s dad) looks like kindly old Pops from the mortuary.
By the time Satan gets busy, the film’s two levels of doubt are overruled: Lucas not feeling strong enough to continue to cast ‘em out, Michael not sure the whole thing isn’t stuff and nonsense.
So the devil doesn’t want us to believe he exists. He’d rather be like a sneak thief. Then why does he make his possessed victims barf up frogs and the holy nails of the cross? Why does he boast in a death metal voice he’s going to be eating maggots off the dead flesh for supper? I’d suggest Mr. Subtle Beezlebub is calling attention to himself with such flamboyant gestures, giving hardened proof of crazy demonic possession…and reason for us to take sanctuary in church as opposed to going to the flea market. The film’s point earlier had been that doubt was the key.
“What do you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?” Lucas says, lowering our expectations. Can’t have it both ways. As in Season of the Witch, another January special, the element of doubt over whether the supernatural is responsible could have made for a slyer movie. The question “Could it be Satan?” is always more fun answered “Maybe.”
Though a figure slyer than Hopkins would be hard to imagine.
I see that Hopkins’ next part is Odin. I imagine he’ll be up to it.