BY ROBERT HAMMERLE, guest contributor to Hammervision
Times have not been good for the Roman Catholic Church, and the uncomfortably eerie "The Rite" is not helping the cause one iota. Trapped in a pedophile scandal that won't go away; ensconced in an increasingly rigid bureaucracy run by and for old men; headed by a Pope who was a member of the Nazi youth as a 16 year old, the Church now is faced with a movie that glorifies the merits of exorcism.
"The Rite" is not so much frightening as it is downright creepy. It may be the ultimate religious oxymoron, namely a horror movie about Catholic dogma.
What makes a good horror film so fundamentally enjoyable is the fact that we all know it is pure fantasy. You can "be very afraid" in a healthy way while watching movies like "The Fly" [both the original with Vincent Price released in 1958 and the enjoyable remake with Jeff Goldblum (1986)], precisely because you have knowingly suspended reality and entered a make-believe world. That holds true with all the classic horror films from "Dracula" (1931); Frankenstein" (1931); "The Wolf Man" (1941); "Poltergeist" (1982) through the recently released and thoroughly intriguing "Paranormal Activity" movies (2007& 2009).
In addition, movies dealing with demonic possession as well as the Devil himself taking human form have been the basis for some wildly entertaining movies. Think of Mia Farrow giving birth to the Devil's child in the classic "Rosemary's Baby" (1968); Gregory Peck and Lee Rimick discovering to their everlasting regret that the Devil has surreptitiously exchanged places with their child in the unsurpassable "The Omen" (1976), not to mention the granddaddy of them all, William Friedkin's frightening classic "The Exorcist" (1973).
However, what dooms "The Rite" from the beginning is the fact that it violates the fundamental underlying principle of the above sensational films, namely that it wants you to believe that demonic possession is no less a natural scourge on mankind than AIDS or Polio. Furthermore, it would also have you believe the preposterous notion that it is up to the true believers in the Vatican to address this problem and drive the Devil back to his lair in the Underworld.
Accordingly, it doesn't take long for "The Rite" to devolve into a preposterous, insulting cinematic mess. Briefly stated Colin O'Donnoghue plays Michael Kovak, the son of a morose undertaker (Rutger Hauer) who for reasons largely unexplained decides to enter the priesthood. Finding himself doubting his own faith four years later, he is forced to go to Rome for two months in order to escape paying for his otherwise free education. Once in Rome, our doubting Mr. Kovak is sent to observe Father Lucas, who seems to have cornered the market as Rome's favorite exorcist. What follows tests Mr. Kovak's faith as he tries to decide whether the hapless patients of Father Lucas are simply mentally ill or actually possessed.
The wonderful character actor Ciarán Hinds is wasted as a Vatican sycophant. Though you certainly couldn't tell it from this shallow film, hunt him down in either Steven Spielberg's underrated "Munich" (2005) or take in his performance as Caesar in the HBO mini-series "Rome" (2005 - 2007).
For those of you who are still with me, let me simply summarize "The Rite" as one long pretentious scene of Anthony Hopkins overacting as the Devil chasing Father Lucas. While Mr. Hopkins is clearly an accomplished actor, he also is capable of being as hammy as they come. Here, his Father Lucas is an amalgam of his stroke-addled father in "Legends of the Fall" (1994), Dr. Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs" trilogy (1991, 2001 and 2002) and his demented Sir Ben Talbot who had his own hairy little secret in the most recent "The Wolfman" (2010). Unfortunately, while Father Lucas is supposed to be a priest doing the work of the Lord, he comes off as having more in common with the hysterical mad scientist played by Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks' uproariously funny "Young Frankenstein" (1974).
Early in the "The Rite" when our young, doubting priest first observes Father Lucas performing an exorcism on a poor, unfortunate, pregnant Italian girl, he asks Father Lucas after a largely uneventful session, "Is that it?" The good Father responds, "What did you expect, spinning heads? Green vomit?" As I sat in the largely empty theater, barely suppressing my self-loathing, I was hoping the response would be, "That would be preferable to this bunch of pretentious religious crap."
Several weeks ago, there was an article in the New York Times where Catholic Bishops released an announcement that the Church was studying the need to put more emphasis on performing exorcisms here in the United States. Coming on the heels of the Catholic Bishop in Phoenix who recently excommunicated a Nun for authorizing an abortion in a Catholic sponsored hospital for a mother whose life was clearly threatened by her pregnancy, I couldn't help but think that somewhere there was a modern day Martin Luther who would soon travel to Wittenberg where he would nail to the door his 95 Thesis of Contention.
Those of us who grew up in the Catholic faith know better than anyone that the organized Church as led by the Vatican has lost its way. With their ensconced sexism that continues to deny the priesthood to women combined with their demonizing gays, one can only imagine what Jesus Christ would say if he was to appear in Rome today. One cannot help but speculate that he would begin by throwing the Pope and that college of ancient fogies known as the College of Cardinals out on the street as he did with the money changers in the Temple 2,000 years ago. Maybe he would remind the Church leaders that the very core of his teachings centered on compassion and helping those in need and not founding a rigid Church that valued authoritarian dogma to the exclusion of nearly everything else.
Without question, "The Rite" unintentionally embraces much that is wrong with the modern day Church, and it makes for woeful entertainment on any level.