The Rite: A Brief Movie Review

12 Feb

***Near-spoiler Alert***

This is a movie review.  If you are the type of person who gets easily angered by movie spoilers, near-spoilers, or anything that could potentially be considered a spoiler, please click somewhere else now.  Or go make yourself some hot chocolate.  Or I hear there are some adorable videos of kittens playing the piano over on YouTube.


I was very much looking forward to seeing The Rite.  I cannot resist spooky movies, especially the kind filled with creepy, Catholic hoo-hah.  Also upping the creep factor?  Sir Anthony Hopkins.  He plays an unorthodox Catholic priest who specializes in exorcisms. That is literally as much as I knew about the film before sitting down in the movie theater a few hours ago.  What I found so intriguing about The Rite is that from the previews it appeared to have a slightly skeptical flavor to it.  I had heard that Sir Hopkins himself is a doubter who was quoted in an interview as saying, “Our existence is beyond our explanation, whether we believe in God or we have religion or we’re atheist. Our existence is beyond our understanding. No one has an answer.”

Creepiness.  Acting talent.  Doubt.  All fine ingredients for the making of a great movie where religion is front and center.

In the film. a young man with a troubled homelife seeks the priesthood to get away.  After four years in seminary, he finds himself in Rome at what basically amounts to an exorcism retreat.  After expressing his doubt in the existence of demons, devils and gods to the head dress-wearing priest dude, he gets sent to observe Father Sir Hopkins perform an exorcism for “proof.”  Like a good skeptic, the troubled young priest thinks the subject of the exorcism would be better served by medical science.

However, the tables are soon turned when the doubter finds himself experiencing the supernatural firsthand. Father Sir Hopkins cautions him that, “choosing not to believe in the devil will not protect you from him.” The young man is faced with a choice: continue in his disbelief or turn to god.

The majority of the film is beautifully set against the backdrop of Rome. It is well shot and visually stunning.  Also, the acting talent assembled for this film is top notch.  It should go without saying that Sir Hopkins is absolutely convincing in his role as the elderly Jesuit exorcist.

Unfortunately, that is where my praise of this film ends.  What begins as a promising film about the intersection of faith and skepticism morphs into something else entirely.  By the end, I realized I had just watched a 114-minute long advertisement for belief.  The young apprentice exorcist provides the only skepticism in the entire movie and he ends up being totally wrong.  Please don’t mistake me, I’m not disappointed in the film because the demons end up being real and the skeptic ends up having to revise his point of view.  That is precisely what any good skeptic should do when presented with overwhelming evidence.  The real trouble occurs when doubter-priest finally accepts that god and demons are real and is immediately granted the power to cast out the nasty demons thereby saving the day.  I slowly came to the painful realization that the whole point of the film is that faith saves you where science and medicine cannot. And everybody duck because there goes my extra-large soda at the screen.

It didn’t even deliver the anticipated creepiness that I had hoped for.  The demonic possessions were pretty standard fare.  Strange, growling voices speaking Latin.  Unnatural body contortions.  Black eyes and disgusting “demon” skin.  Frankly, the most unsettling part of the entire film is a scene where Sir Hopkins is shirtless.

And speaking of Sir Hopkins, I thought he was a skeptic and a doubter.  I want to invite him over for tea, bake him some cupcakes, sit down on his lap and sweetly ask him what in the burning hell he was thinking. As a skeptic, I couldn’t imagine signing on to a project where the message is so anti-skepticism.  Even if that was not the writers’ intention, the end result is:

  1. Faith gives you automatic superpowers.  Just believe!
  2. If you are experiencing voices, disorientation, hallucinations, or skin rashes do not waste your time going to see silly doctors.  You’d better call in a priest.
  3. Doubting, questioning and critical thinking will cause you pain and confusion.

In spite of Sir Hopkins, The Rite is a faith-filled flop.  The tag line from the movie poster summarizes it adequately:  You Can Only Defeat It When You Believe.

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7 Responses to “The Rite: A Brief Movie Review”

  1. Galen Faulkes February 12, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

    What was Hopkins thinking? He liked the script, thought the part would be fun, and there was a boatload of money involved.

    You are aware that this movie is fiction? it is possible to watch a movie with the belief that there is a Catholic church but no God just like you can watch The Lord of the Rings knowing there are really swords but no Hobbits.

    • Spock February 12, 2011 at 10:05 pm #

      Yes, you are probably right about Hopkins. Even a British Knight needs a paycheck.

      I would be willing to bet that, even the average religious believer, could easily recognize the fiction (disembodied demonic voices, telepathy, inhuman body contortions) in this movie. The bad part is the subtext; that faith provides (super-human) strength and skepticism causes weakness. From her review, it does not appear she’s concerned about the movie being non-fiction. Her bigger concern here is the movie makers’ suggestion that, when faced with a major crisis, faith (or unquestioning belief) is more powerful than critical thinking.

      Even if the average movie-goer leaves the film saying, “what an entertaining piece of fiction, demon-possession is not really real,” they have yet another example to justify their irrational belief that having faith is fundamentally a good thing.

      There is another problem with dismissing this particular movie as just harmless ‘fiction.’ The movie uses that intentionally hazy line “inspired by true events” as an attempt to lend credibility to the storyline. As a rationalist, I know that just being ‘inspired’ by events which *may* have happened does not make a movie more credible. However, the average movie-goer is not a rationalist.

      So, when you combine the ideas that 1.) faith in god(s) provides the believer with special powers over evil, 2.) Skeptical, critical thinking will lead to weakness, and 3.) this story may have some elements taken from ‘true’ events, you are left with a fairly convincing argument for the value of a faith-based life. And whether the move is fictitious or not, it’s what people take away from the experience that bothers me most.

  2. Cupcake February 18, 2011 at 3:18 am #

    Gary – Spock and I watched a good one. I think it was called The Last Exorcism. It was creepy as hell, and the skepticism/mystery carried all the way through to the end so you didn’t know exactly what was going on. I really liked that one, highly recommend it.

    I agree that so many times networks like Discovery latch on to the money-makers regardless of how asanine the idea. What next?

    • Richard Healy February 25, 2011 at 5:35 am #

      I saw the Excorcism of Emily Rose again the other day. A rather underrated movie IMO. And one of the more sensible in the ‘possessed by demons’ movie pantheon.

      It’s all there, the bad skin, the contortions, speaking in guttural Latin and a misjudged third act “are the demons real??” but overall it does a pretty decent job of balancing the faith-version of events with a hard-nosed sceptical and medical explanation. The actress portraying Emily (Jennifer Carpenter) is extraordinary

      Story is Laura Linny sceptic has to defend her client, a catholic priest (Tom Wilkinson) in court after he is charged with the negligent homicide of the titular Emily Rose, following a botched exorcism.

    • Gary March 8, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

      Looks like CNN is getting in on the action: http://richarddawkins.net/videos/600056-meet-america-s-top-exorcist-the-inspiration-for-the-rite

      They don’t even question it (though they don’t really endorse it either). But not having anybody on to repudiate the claim is tacit endorsement of the position. It is almost like they want people to entertain the idea that demonic possession is feasible.

      • Cupcake March 9, 2011 at 4:02 am #

        Yes, and once again I’m reminded that the press is selling a product. Grrrr….

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