It is impossible to watch a movie about exorcism, much less review one, without comparing it to the seminal work in the genre, 1973's Friedkin/Blatty masterpiece The Exorcist. So I won't even try.
The Rite (2011) is a film about a young seminary student who is sent to exorcism classes in Rome as part of an attempt to help him find his faith. Everything else, below, is pretty much "ahoy, there be spoilers ahead" territory.
The cast of The Rite does a fine job and the film is moody, atmospheric, but never really scary. I recognize that it should be a horror film, but ultimately I feel that it fails to horrify. Is this because of The Exorcist? Not entirely, no. While no exorcism film can exist in a vacuum due to the sheer media presence of The Exorcist, not to mention that The Exorcist came first and set all the standards for these films, creating for us a set of exorcism expectations, The Rite flows more as a drama/thriller than a horror movie, lacking significantly in shocks, jumps, surprises or gore. It is still worth watching.
Since no exorcism film can be viewed without referring to The Exorcist let's go ahead and get that out of the way.
The plot of The Rite concerns a young man who has been raised to be a mortician, like his father, but chooses instead to go into the seminary where he can get a degree, noting that he can choose to leave the priesthood if it is not for him. We fast forward 4 years to see our hero, Michael, ready to graduate from seminary and refuse to accept the cloth. We find that he is tops in psychology and sciences, but did poorly in theology, almost as though he purposely took a dive on the exam. (Exorcist similarity warning: Father Damien Karras is a priest who has a crisis of faith and tells Chris MacNeil that the Jesuits sent him to school when she inquired how a psychiatrist became a priest) Michael suggests a lack of faith or calling, so his mentor warns him that his scholarship would likely be converted into a VERY EXPENSIVE student loan if he chose not to become a priest. In order to avoid this unpleasantness Michael goes to Rome for a few weeks, on the Church dime, to attend exorcism classes. While there the lead instructor, Father Xavier, sends Michael to meet a friend of his, practicing exorcist and Jesuit, Father Lucas (played by Anthony Hopkins). (Exorcist similarity warning: Old Priest and a Young Priest) Michael routinely challenges the authenticity of the exorcism process, the things he experiences, and the honesty of Father Lucas, especially after witnessing a bit of slight-of-hand and chicanery from the old Jesuit as he administers to a young boy who has nightmares. Michael decides to leave the life of the cloth behind and after receiving word of his father's death back in the states, he begins to experience a number of strange phenomena, ultimately he finds himself back with Father Lucas, who has himself become possessed. What follows is a struggle between Michael and his lack of faith as he attempts to save the old priest.
Notice how it stopped being like The Exorcist pretty quickly?
The filmmakers are keenly aware that the film will be measured by Friedkin's yardstick, even taking a respectful jab at the older film in a scene where Michael is seemingly unimpressed by the exorcism he has witnessed, prompting Father Lucas to ask if he (Michael) expected heads turning around and vomiting of pea soup. The practice, or rites, of exorcism, and the investigations required of the priests are discussed in the film long before we see an exorcism being performed. We learn that the key to expelling the possessing spirit is to know its name and the goal of the exorcist is to get the demon to provide that key bit of information. In this way the film is working with some very old traditions concerning spirits and magic, benign and otherwise. Compare this to The Exorcist and we see a very different film indeed.
The Exorcist is a film that tells intertwining stories: a detective investigating a series of crimes, a mother's increasing powerlessness to help her daughter, the possession of that daughter by evil forces, a priest's crisis of faith and the ultimate battle of good and evil represented by the eponymous exorcist (played by Max Von Sydow) and his demonic foe. It is a complex film taken from a complex novel and repeated viewings always provide more to discover. Okay, that's a lie, but it is expected that I say that. If you've seen it about 22 times (a which I have) you've pretty much seen it all. By comparison The Rite is a very focused film. All the action takes place around and through the main character, seminary student Michael Kovak. The possessions (yes, plural) are vehicles for moving Michael's story along. This is a film about a would-be priest's crisis of faith, not a film in which a priest has a crisis of faith. That is a very important distinction, because while there are threads to this plot, it is all focused on Michael, whereas in Exorcist there are multiple tales weaving together.
Now to the really important part: the exorcisms.
Damn you, Billy Friedkin, you set the bar too high.
After watching the film, Frau Punkinstein said to me that The Exorcist was better. I agree, but I would like to note that The Exorcist had the benefit of being first. The Exorcist set the standard and the tropes for demon possession films for the next 38 years that followed it and on into the future. What is very important to remember is that when The Exorcist was showing us levitating beds, freezing cold rooms, pea soup vomit, demonic transformation and spinning heads, it was all new. This was the film that set those standards. On top of that we must consider the running time of the film. 122 minutes in the theater (about 10 minutes longer in the re-release versions with added footage). During that 122 minutes we are given a story that builds slowly. Sitting here in 2011 reading a blog we all know that The Exorcist is a film about a little girl that becomes possessed by a demonic spirit, but the way the film was shot it could be something else for quite a bit. Regan MacNeil could be faking it or she could be mentally disturbed. When it becomes absolutely obvious that she is in the throws of a supernatural force is when we finally see something that cannot be refuted logically, but still we don't get that over-the-top head-spinning fun until the last reel when Max Von Sydow's Father Merrin arrives (remember him? Yeah, we saw him during the first 8 minutes of the film, then he disappeared for an hour and a half) and the exorcism suggested by the bloody title finally begins. Up to that point the film displays elements of mystery, suspense, and detective story. The very fact that Father Karras is a psychiatrist and attempts to treat Regan using psychiatric methods keeps us unprepared (in the first viewing at least) for the very real and powerful manifestations of demonic power we are treated to in the climatic scenes of the film. The Rite does use a similar slow burn, but then The Rite is not a film about "an" exorcism but is more a film that uses the concept of "exorcism" as ritual as part of its overall storytelling. Again the similarities between Karras and Kovak are mostly superficial (two men, the former a psychiatrist, the latter acing his psych exams, but not an MD; both have a recent death to contend with, mother for Karras, father for Kovak; both having a crisis of faith), but problems are similar enough and the key to their resolution (God's existence proved by the Devil's existence) is close enough to make them literary twins. They come to different ends ultimately, as do the two films.
THE TRIUMPH OF GOOD OVER EVIL
Exorcist sequels notwithstanding, the Friedkin film ends with the triumph of good over evil, albeit in a somewhat depressing fashion. Merrin dies fighting his ancient enemy, Karras sacrifices himself to save Regan and the young girl remembers nothing of what happened. Evil was defeated but we know it is still out there, somewhere, waiting...brrrr, is it cold in here?
The Rite ends with a very clear message that our hero, and thus all of us, need to be constantly on our guard because evil is with us, always. However it is more upbeat in that both the Old Priest and the Young Priest survive.
But good wins. Ultimately? Who can say?
To me the thing that really sticks out about The Rite is that Michael Kovak really, truly seems to doubt the existence of God, the Devil, or anything supernatural, and it is ultimately his "confession" that he "believes in the Devil", a moment that seems like a person converting to EVIL that leads to his finding his faith in the crisis. What follows is, to me at least, an impressive spiritual arse-kicking (as opposed to Damien Karras's physical arse-kicking of his foe). In keeping with the low-key tone of The Rite we are presented with a less graphic, but still dramatic, exorcism that sticks to the film's "rules" as presented earlier. I found it a satisfying ending sequence.
IS IT WORTH WATCHING?
In a word, yes. I will not say it is better than The Exorcist because I really don't see them as competing films. Yes, Exorcist really set the standard for possession films and yes it is damn near impossible to view any film like it and not compare them (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, for example) but consider also how disappointing The Exorcist prequel is by comparison. The Rite is a fine thriller about a young man's skepticism and the nature of proof with enough moody tension to keep one interested, if not scared.