Saturday, January 29, 2011
Hannibal Lecter Meets the Exorcist - The Rite
Mikael (1408) Håfström’s The Rite is not an overly scary movie about exorcism, but it is a sincere, modest little movie about faith and God. Colin O’Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, a mortician’s son who enrolls in an exorcism course in Rome so that he might find God through exposure to the devil. Anthony Hopkins plays a very experienced exorcist, a Welshman named Father Lucas Trevant. At first, Hopkins effectively plays Trevant as a quirky, slovenly weirdo, his wrinkled pate covered with bristly gray hair. When Father Trevant’s breakdown as a result of a possessed girl’s death allows him to be occupied by a demon, Hopkins taps into his inner Hannibal Lecter, glaring maniacally as a taunts Kovak with the kind of breathy rhetoric that is a Hopkins forte, ranging between the merely cheeky and the downright shocking.
During the final duel between Kovak and the demon, you might find yourself expecting Hopkins to flick his tongue between his teeth and utter, “Clarice!” Hannibal Lecter was certainly possessed by some demon, and there’s something suitable about Hopkins playing a possessed exorcist, so you can’t help but chuckle inside. Admiring Hopkins as an actor and enjoying his histrionics, you might chuckle aloud. The fellow behind me, one of a guys’-night-out group I have seen at the mall multiplex on a number of Friday nights, chuckled just about every time Hopkins opened his mouth. Either Hopkins tickled his fancy or he found the film ludicrous (which means he wasn’t Catholic). If the former was the case, I wish he’d restrain his tickled fancy and keep it to himself; if the latter case, the film didn’t quite deserve his response. Despite Hopkins’s hyperbolic Lecterizing, The Rite is an atmospheric, genuinely sincere examination of a young deacon’s conflict with his lack of faith, and his skepticism in regards to God and the existence of the devil.
The movie starts chillingly enough with close shots of embalming tubes and instruments and a squirm-inducing depiction of apprentice mortician Michael Kovak working on a corpse, stuffing and stitching closed the mouth, washing the hair, and preparing to slip on the dead girl’s underwear. In fact, the film’s scariest scenes take place at Michael’s childhood home where a nearly unrecognizable Rutger Hauer, as Michael’s father, works on bodies, filing or painting fingernails with the meticulous care of an artist. At one point, we flash back to young Michael looking down the long dark corridor of memory to the embalming room where his father works on the boy’s dead mother and invites him in to watch. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, but there’s something reliably creepy about scenes in embalming rooms, which is not always the case about scenes involving demons uttering deep-voiced obscenities from a poor girl’s body.
Meanwhile, the film’s wonderful art direction establishes memorable atmosphere in the Rome scenes. The sloppy Father Lucas Trevant lives in a dilapidated hilltop villa where stray cats prowl around the junk-strewn courtyard and a neglected fountain teems with little green frogs. In this old, moldy city, Michael becomes fascinated by the eccentric exorcist, but he casually persists in obvious skepticism (see the image above) during the exorcisms he witnesses.
Trevant’s battle to cast out the devil possessing a sixteen-year-old pregnant girl includes typical exorcism contortions and rolling eyes. (We are also treated to the backlit shot of Father Trevant silhouetted with black hat and black valise, a trademark of The Exorcist which is de rigueur for all wannabe exorcism films.) But the acting is convincing enough to draw our sympathies and grip us moderately. As Michael struggles with his faith and his skepticism regarding the devil and exorcism, creepy circumstances connected with his father’s death tip the balance.
The final confrontation with the demon in Trevant, when you might find yourself hoping that the exorcism genre has seen its last film, Hopkins has a field day acting like Hannibal, but he has done enough throughout the movie to establish Father Lucas as a likeable slob that we care about what happens despite the melodramatic trappings of the scene. Hopkins has a talent for creating a memorable character such as Burt Munro in The World’s Fastest Indian (2005), which seems hinted at by the presence of the old motorcycle Father Lucas tinkers with in his dank courtyard.
The Rite never scared me. Having attended a Catholic grade school back in the 60s when the nuns still told stories about martyred virgin saints raped by Roman legions and priests visited by demonic strangers with cloven feet, I find most movies about demonic obsession fascinating, and this one, with its substantial atmosphere, fascinates to a worthy degree. I’ll also admit that I enjoyed seeing Hopkins ham it up with his characteristic, gimmicky delivery of clever verbiage. Given Sir Hopkins’s history as an actor, I had to smile. I may have chuckled once. But, for God’s sake, whoever you were in the row behind me, I didn’t chortle throughout the whole damn movie!