25 February 2011

The Rite: A Brunch Film Review

Lets begin by saying that anything useful, original, intriguing or scary that could be said in that weird genre of horror that is Christian, specifically Catholic, horror was said or done in either The Exorcist, or The Omen (the latter of which is available "instantly" on Netflix for those interested in such things). Director Mikael Håfström has offered nothing new with The Rite. In fact he has borrowed rather extensively from the two films mentioned above (even borrowing a scene in a boxing gym from The Exorcist so blatantly that one is almost tempted to call the scene a plagarism). At its best, The Rite merely provides a vehicle for the very capable Anthony Hopkins to show off his skills. It is only when Hopkins inhabits a scene that the film even comes close to being effective. At its worst the film wastes our time with creaky dialogue, shallow characters and rather sillier than usual theology.

The film, breathlessly claiming to be inspired by true events, follows the adventures of a seminary student, Michael Kovak (played more or less like a block of wood by Colin O'Doneghue) of less than stellar faith who has enrolled simply to score a free four year degree from an accredited institution. Michael's plans, not exactly saintly, are to bail on the priesthood and enjoy his ill gotten degree. A kindly priest, Father Matthew (played by Toby Jones) sees the light of Jesus in the boy, and attempts twice, to get the wayward, faithless block of wood to give the priesthood more time. Without giving too much away, the nice Father Matthew behaves in the unethical fashion we have come to expect from such men and coerces the conflicted Kovak into a course on exorcism in Italy. Apparently demonic possession is on the rise and more and more priests are being called on by their charges to perform this unique and vanishing skill set in villages, towns and big cities whereever the demonically afflicted are found.

"You will be in Florence for three months, what's the worst that can happen?" Asks Father Matthew after he has forced Michael into the cource. Its a useless bit of foreshadowing dialogue, because the viewer already knows that Michael Kovac, closet atheist, and all around priestly failure is in for a rather unpleasant tour of Florence's possessed underbelly.

I will be surprising no one by telling you that Kovack's faith is restored before the end of the film. The script fails rather spectacularly at describing a person who may once have had some faith, perhaps a very serious faith, who has after some considerable reflection found they can no longer believe. This probably isn't the point. The crisis of faith is almost a sub-genre of this kind of film, and the arguments that led to the initial crumbling of that edifice aren't nearly as important as the contrived (and often utterly heartless) coincidences that restore the faith of the hero. It is also rather obvious that Father Michael Kovac is something of a moron. There are some rather obvious, and hard to explain away indiciations that something that could be plausibly described as supernatural is occurring, but his character manages to not even reflect on these incidents, not even momentarily, after they have happened. He maybe offers a quizzical look, or a horrified one and then it is simply forgotten. This seems hardly the stance of someone profoundly concerned with the truth of propositions. And his incurious nature is somewhat at odds with a statement he makes in the film. Early in Kovac's interactions with Father Trevant (Hopkins)he makes a crucial observation, about the problem with holding a position that rules out evidence in making an assessment about the veracity of the position. The conversation becomes pointless when the lack of evidence for the devil is actually proof of the devil (or God one must suppose). Strangely enough Mother Teresa would have understood exactly what Father Kovac was saying, or rather she would have seen Father Trevant's argument coming. For at least forty years or so Mother Teresa was in exactly the same place (up until the time of her demise I think). Yet her Church handlers told her that the fact that she saw no evidence for God, and no she no longer felt his presense actually constituted evidence for God. So while you may spit your massive movie soda out when Father Trevant offers this logic chopping gem up, know that it was, and is used among Catholics at least, even Catholics of very high rank.

So on the one hand we are left with no evidence being a potent form of evidence for Gods and Devils. But also in the film we are shown signs that demons are about, and they are spectacularly banal (through out much of the film). When ordinary bugs, roaches say, or centipedes, crickets, cats (of course poor felines will be impugned)or the occasional frog are a sign that a demon is afoot then anything can be a sign. One can probably already see problems inherent in such a system. Though a quick quibble. The toad that seems to be a sign for demonic possession this movie could not be more harmless. Common in the pet trade, the innocuous, and largely docile Fire-bellied Toad is apparently a fairly sure sign that demons (or at least one particular demon) are about their business in your abode. Or your body. Or your something. Strangely this is a common enough frog in central and eastern Europe, according to the Encyclopedia of Life, so is maybe not an uncommon sight in Florence. Whether are not they are a natural occurence in fair, fair Florence, this humble anuran enjoys a more or less world wide distribution thanks to its popularity as a pet.
What would Fathers Trevant and Kovac make of that? Given their standards of evidence, they probably think they have a lot of exorcizing to do.



At 1:26 PM , Blogger Diacanu said...

Great review.

Yeah, I could tell by the ads this was "Excorcist ripoff #38".

Or..however many there have been...I know it started early, with "Amytville: The Possession".

At 1:26 PM , Blogger Diacanu said...

oops, forgot the followup switch..there...


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