Few films feature fathers in such fractured focus. Ok, forget that—me having fun with alliteration. But The Rite and its apparent focus on flawed and absent fathers—both of this world and the next— was a nice contrast for me after my foray into the (I felt) overwhelmingly misogynist world of Antichrist. This foreign director, Michael Hafstrom from Sweden, might not have the same “issues” with women that our old buddy Lars does, but he also takes significantly fewer risks in a highly-Hollywood-ized homage to the ritual of exorcism. Another bonus: I got to explain to my husband about eye-caps less than five minutes into the film—thank you, Jessica Mitford and Six Feet Under.
As you might have guessed, there are lots of fathers in this film, up to and including God. The film also asks us to use the term loosely, as it can apply to actual parental fathers as well as Catholic priests: gotta have priests in any good exorcism film. Also, priests with crises of faith are real crowd-pleasers. This film has TWO of those. Maybe one of the problems I have with most films about exorcism is that they rely so, so heavily on certain conventions. The Rite is the story of Michael (Colin O’Donoghue) and his convoluted journey to the Vatican by way of his father’s mortuary. One of the things that make this film more interesting than perhaps your standard exorcism film (if it in fact isn’t one of those) is Michael’s family mortuary business, which adds the wrinkle of the ritual of burial. And the casting of Rutger Hauer as his creepy, first-generation Hungarian dad. The other thing the keeps this film from having a perilously high yawn-factor is, of course, Anthony Hopkins, who is tellingly featured rather prominently on the poster art even though the film is ostensibly focused on Michael’s character. I know my brother went to see this film in the theatre, hoping (I theorized) to catch a glimpse of our favorite villain, Hannibal Lecter, in Hopkins’s portrayal of Father Lucas Trevant. Clearly the casting agent also had those thoughts, because what could be better for horror film fans than a priest played by an actor who also played a cannibal? Well, OK, maybe that’s just me.
Though Michael’s relationship with his father, mortuary owner Istvan Kovak (Rutger Hauer), is obviously strained, Michael allows his father to dictate the direction of his life and livelihood—either follow in his creepy dad’s footsteps and become a mortuary assistant, or enter the seminary. Michael’s choice of the latter at least removes him from living directly under his father’s thumb, and he fills the role of skeptical priest-in-training rather nicely, especially in his “exorcism class” (who knew there were such classes?) where he challenges the priest instructor frequently with questions any good Catholic believer simply wouldn’t ask. Maybe this has something to do with his mother’s death during his childhood, and his father’s role in embalming her, nail polish and all (did I mention how creepy the dad is??). Maybe it has something to do with the hapless death of a young girl that occurs during the exposition of the film, over whom Michael is compelled to issue the last rites. Either way, motive for faithlessness established. Bravo.
Because of Michael’s demonstrated lack of respect for the Christian faith he’s supposed to be studying, he’s sent to “intern” with Father Lucas (Hopkins), a renowned exorcist in Rome. Interesting that the cases on which Michael cuts his proverbial exorcist teeth involve a pregnant young woman who is the victim of incest with her father, and a young boy who is tormented by nightmares of a red-eyed mule and who also lacks any kind of father figure.
Rosaria, the young pregnant woman, exhibits strange supernatural behavior during her exorcism session, including knowledge of Michael’s father as well as Michael’s last sexual conquest before entering the seminary. But Michael is still unconvinced that she is really possessed, citing her incestual experience and insisting that this experience has produced psychosis in the young woman, not demonic possession. In addition to doubting the existence of demonic possession, Michael also has a clear attraction to Angelina (Alice Braga), a reporter who is covering the exorcism seminar as an assignment. These two facts (among others) encourage viewers to see Michael as unfit and unwilling to be a good priest. As Rosaria’s condition worsens and she is moved to a hospital, Michael is called to examine the young boy, who presents with hoof-shaped marks on his torso and a history of nightmares. True to form, Michael questions the boy’s single mother about abuse.
After another failed attempt to exorcise Rosaria’s demons, she and her baby perish in a miscarriage, leaving Father Lucas in an extreme depression (and, it is implied, therefore really, really vulnerable to demonic possession himself). Apparently Rosaria’s demon takes this opportunity to infest Father Lucas’s soul. It is during the exorcism of Father Lucas (performed by Michael with Angelina’s assistance) that we get a few fleeting glimpses of Hopkins’s range and we can believe for just a few moments that his role in this film has to do with acting and not box-office draw. Of course, through this exor-cise (haha) and maybe because of a few supernatural experiences of his own (including a telephone conversation with his dead father), Michael regains his faith, banishes Ba’al (the demon) and, it is revealed in the dénouement, willingly enters the priesthood. Though Catholic doctrine would prevent him from becoming an actual father, he can be Father to many, just like the Father he serves.
There may not be a specific scene wherein this film’s commentary on fathers can be adequately articulated, but, oddly, it seems a horror film with a feel-good ending, especially if the viewer adheres to some religious belief. Michael regains his faith and contentedly serves his congregation with the skills he’s honed under Father Lucas’s tutelage. He focuses on improving his parishioners’ lives rather than serving them in death.
Michael may seek to avoid dealing in death because of the most significant death in his life, that of his mother. In a flashback, it is revealed that she once gave him a prayer card on which she had written “you are not alone,” a phrase that then comes to have special meaning for him in the course of Father Lucas’s exorcism. Oddly, however, this phrase is uttered by Angelina, whom, if Michael enters the priesthood, he can never have more than a friendly acquaintance with. It is also worth noting that this phrase—which emphasizes connectedness and comfort—links the two women who are featured positively in the film. The other women—nuns (always stern), Michael’s female bartender friend (promiscuous), the young boy’s mother (suspected of abuse), Rosaria (possessed) and Rosaria’s aunt (impotent when it comes to her niece’s “condition” and perhaps because of this roundaboutly complicit in the familial situation that put her in that state)—are either wholly glossed over using gender stereotypes or depicted negatively. ANGELina and Michael’s mother seem to represent another type of woman, but a type with which Michael cannot directly interact (one is dead, the other off-limits).
But wait. This phrase is supposed to connect Michael to his heavenly Father, not to flawed human women. So it doesn’t matter that it’s spoken by women. They are only messengers of God, fulfilling a role in a religion that both perpetuates and promotes patriarchal rule. Michael has received the message, healed his father-by-proxy (Lucas) and begun a journey wherein he’ll be God’s representative in the Church. Through a ritual that signals rebirth (free from demons), Michael enters a community of men charged with absolving and passing judgment on others. Traditional patriarchal order is reestablished! All Rite.