If you're going to do a movie about exorcists and exorcism, you pretty much have to have at least one priest who is grappling with his faith in the cast. I'm not saying that this is a good thing, just that it seems to be an inevitability of the genre. It's not always a bad thing, by any means, but in the case of The Rite, it really doesn't help things.
Michael Kovak works in the family funeral home, washing and preparing bodies for their final viewing and burial. He goes about this business with calm and patience, as a plumber might tighten a pipe fitting or a mason might lay brick. It is work, and should be done well, but it's nothing to get all freaked out about.
He doesn't want to be a mortician like his father, though. He wants to go to college, but family expectations hold him back. Everyone in his family is an undertaker or a priest. So he makes the decision to go to seminary, with the intent of dropping out before he takes his vows. One college education, minus the hassle from Dad. He toasts his last night of freedom over beers with a friend and one last fling with an attractive bartender.
So Michael isn't what you might call a paragon of faith to begin with. It's one thing to be grappling with a faith you feel or once felt, it's another thing to have never really had it and cynically exploit its existence in others. I mean, nothing's happened and still, fuck this guy, you know?
Sure enough, his attempt to hustle an education is pretty much brought to a halt when he tries to resign, because how stupid does he think these priests are? The dean of the school is all "yeah, we can make you pay that shit back if we want to, but here, go talk to this dude in Rome instead." Said dude is Father Trevant - a thoroughly eccentric but well-practiced exorcist, and Michael is to be taken under his wing. Maybe his combination of smarts and attempts to explain everything in terms of secular phenomena makes him especially good exorcist material. Maybe the dean of the seminary just wants to fuck with him. It works either way.
What follows is Michael's education in exorcism, from lectures and films, to time spent with Trevant, who is attempting to exorcise one of the local townsfolk. Throughout, analogies between possession and illness are made, and as much as it serves to tread well-worn issues of faith and reason (possessed or mentally ill? asks every demonic possession film ever), it also provides a nice framework for the nature of possession itself. Trevant tells Michael that you treat possession like you would chronic illness, over many sessions, and its most visible symptoms are physical ones - social withdrawal, self-harm, tremors in the hand.
…or would, if it weren't for Michael. He is full of doubt throughout, but the things he sees don't seem to have the effect on him that they should. What should probably play as curiosity plays as indifference, what should play as cynical amusement plays as indifference, and should play as shock and terror at the violations of time, space, and nature swirling around him plays as…casual interest. It's only when things get to pants-shitting terrifying that he really feels scared and engaged.
I understand that part of the text is supposed to be the renewal of faith in the unbeliever as he witnesses miracles and horrors, and I hate resorting to "if that were me" criticism, but shit happens to this guy that would have me, as rational and skeptical as they come, peeing my pants and saying "welp, so much for not believing in the Devil." Which is too bad, because that enervation and passivity really drags down what could otherwise be a nicely underplayed take on demonic possession. As it is, we're sort of waiting for Michael to stand up and take on the mantle of hero, as the reluctant hero eventually must. He never really does, and The Rite is found wanting as a result.
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Not available on Netflix