It’s too bad, really, that when walking into a movie these days, high expectations are a bad attitude, that it’s expected of you to prepare for disappointment.
The moment I heard chatter of an upcoming exorcism movie going into production featuring Anthony Hopkins this time last year, inspired by real life events based on a newly rejuvenated exorcist “school” at the Vatican, I raced to the bookstore to find the source material. Written by Matt Baglio, The Rite; The Making of a Modern Day Exorcist was the story of an American priest shipped off to Rome to learn the ways of battle against the ever-growing problem of possession, seen through the eyes of a journalist who followed from the shadows. The book is a must-read, circling those issues of not only the ramifications of the church’s denial of the devil’s work for the last hundred years (until only very recently), but also the very real issue of possession in the world today and its lack of theatrics and head-spinning glory.
Generally story purists read a book and attack the movie for not being exactly like the book – see Harry Potter, Twilight, the Lord of the Rings, others. But novels and books cannot translate to the big screen word for word, scene for scene. Cinema is an art radically different from the long form. If I may go so far, it’s like comparing an interpretive oil painting that expresses the innerworkings of a story and calling it poor for not sticking scene by scene, to the story. They’re two different forms, apples and oranges.
And so I approach movies as their own devices. They take the important themes and general premise of the story and make something fresh.
The moment I saw the trailer for the theatrical adaptation of the Rite, I was pumped to see how the story would change to be successful on-screen. Hopkins, bringing a kind of grandfatherly feel intermingled with a tired, darker side, discusses the more personal, intimate translation of the book’s broader, cultural observations, that of doubt and the skeptic, belief and those crises thereof. Yes, the trailer climaxes at veiny faces and hoods and whispers intermixed with screams for salvation, which of itself seemed to speak against the very message of the book, but it’s a movie, that’s to be expected. The message of the book is that demonic possession is too often more like a sickness, and an exorcism is little more than a prayer and a cough (no pea soup there.) I was willing to throw this aside. Hollywood has to tell the story is their own way, and the groundwork here was exciting, reminiscent even of the potential in 2009’s the Last Exorcism (which also blew every thematic element in the mess of an ending, but that’s another review).
Some movies are best left to trailers.
Everything was lost with the Rite: The mood established in the trailer, (darkly gorgeous, a give-and-take between the light and the night at the dawn; the cityscape and play between the ancient and the new; the plot, both intense and philosophical) was lost. The problem? Dare I say having Matt Baglio as co-writer?
See, the movie was lost in this very translation from story to screen, afraid to embrace the opportunities presented in this new form, but reluctant also to fully leave the messages of the book. And so we were caught in this strange, flatly contemplative story with cheap scares.
To go farther, I can’t discuss the movie without discussing the end. Spoilers ahead.
The movie deals with themes of father figures and faith throughout, stemming from Michael Kovak’s (O’Donoghue) relationship with his father. But it was all very tacked on, and that’s what’s most painful about these types of movies, is their potential that falls apart. The film is filled with father figures fighting for Kovak’s future, from his biological father, to his various teachers, to Hopkins’ Father Lucas, to God, and by extrapolation, even the devil himself.
There comes a layering; as these various priests compete to convince Kovak of the reality of god, they do so through the avenue of evil. If the devil’s greatest trick is convincing man he doesn’t exist, how does the experience of a possession both serve and counter Satan’s very own intentions? Father Lucas battles the darkness in non-traditional fashion, fighting to convince Kovak of the existence of God and Satan, and eventually falls into being possessed himself.
Some might call this final element over-the-top, that the movie ends ridiculously. Perhaps, but I loved it. In idea though, and not execution. The study of Lucas’s trustworthiness was utterly under-represented. His methods are shifty and he becomes a character that deeply, in both Hopkins portrayal and the writing itself, shifts between manipulative, devout, and mentally unstable.
His possession serves as the final straw that pushes Kovak into his faith, finally, as he comes to exorcise his very teacher.
What a scene! What potential. Not only in the dynamic between role reversal and crisis, but the questions posed by whether or not Hopkins is even himself possessed! Could the entire experience be a ploy to convince Kovak? This, indeed, could have carried the entire second half of the movie, rather than the just climax. What drama between the two as Kovak is pushed to doubt his own teacher. To extend trust, to manipulate the audience into the same kind of doubt he experiences, and gradually our own experience of watching Lucas fall into the clutches of the very foe he’s spent his life battling, is an incredibly rich kind of interaction.
Can you imagine then? The scene where Lucas stands overlooking the city, trembling, fighting the evil itself inside, finally, his own body? When he slaps the child, confirming that there really is something else inside? What a moment of truth for the audience! In that very scene, we could have realized, in the same way as Kovak eventually experiences, the reality of this darkness.
And then to further up the stakes with the discussion of the father dynamic, all of his fathers; His biological father, his dead father, his mentor, the devil speaking through his mentor, quoting his real father, all adding up to the reality of his ultimate Father. What would each of those mean? If Lucas is only performing, what does that say about God? Is all faith a performance? Can you imagine what the loss of trust in his mentor, Father Lucas, would do to his faith in general, and how much power the demonic would have to manipulate that very loss of faith in Kovak?
The implications and drama between the two could pave a destructive path through the movie far more horrific and far more human, than a pregnant girl rolling about with purple veins standing out on her face and the weakly-fleshed-out significance of finding a name for the demon.
With such exciting themes and directions of the movie, I was willing to forgive the technical errors that Baglio’s book was written to clarify and reveal. Though on a kind of ethical level, this might seem very conflicting (the book illustrated the real Father that Hopkins portrayed, who had lines outside his office of people needing exorcisms, and that all too often their rites were brief and unspectacular. Still, his stress with the work was the point, not that there are Linda Blairs peppering the world.) but I was willing to sacrifice in order to experience a thematically challenging movie.
It’s worth seeing for the way Hopkins slides into the role so naturally, playing every angle of his character with the kind of deft that makes him one of our greatest actors in the last thirty years, and for the thematic undercurrents, but not for the execution.
And that’s the letdown. This movie fell into the classic tradition of guttural voices and screams, failing to illustrate any kind of reality beyond it’s curtains, but equally failed to illustrate the true drama of the search for faith, the influence of our fathers, and the internal violence that can come from turmoil as much as the devil.