31 January 2011

The Rite

Directed by: Mikael Håfström
Written by: Michael Petroni
Full credits at IMDb

The small town in which The Rite opens looks like the Lowell of The Fighter—that is, like no one has invested in it (and, in particular, its signage) since 1973. That's the year at which the movie feels frozen in both aesthetic and essence: it's the year The Exorcist opened, and the year at which The Rite would like exorcism movies to have stopped being made.

In an essay I wrote this summer, "The Evolution of the Exorcism Movie," I suggested a continuum for parsing an exorcism-movie's politics, with the Catholic conservatism of Friedkin-Blatty's ur-text at one end (in which the Devil is a horned monster from Hell), and the psychological revisionism of the 2006 German movie Requiem at the other (in which "evil," if it even exists, is more amorphous). Thanks to that import, which posits a young girl's "possession" as more likely an amalgam of epilepsy and psychosis, the exorcism movie can no longer ignore or quickly dismiss the tension between the spiritual and the medical, between demons and psychosis. The last major exorcism movie, August's The Last Exorcism, left the question as to the source of its evil—hell-spawn or nervous breakdown?—ambiguous until its final reel. I wrote that, though that reel felt disappointingly literal, I was pleased that the filmmakers "went farther than any other...yet in moving the exorcism movie away from proselytizing for Catholicism and toward a more complex vision of human suffering. Perhaps the next exorcism movie won't conclude so cravenly." But The Rite not only concludes cravenly, it opens cravenly, and stays craven in between. It doesn't just take a step back—it takes ten.

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