Review of The Rite
February 16, 2011
In order to escape his Catholic mortician family, a skeptical atheist goes to seminary school. Once there, his teachers think he is best suited to perform exorcisms. In a lousy attempt at showing a doubter coming around to faith, The Rite misses the point of skepticism altogether and manages to make Catholics look like numbskulls who lack the ability to understand the foundations of a skeptical, non-theistic point of view.
[Note: I generally do not reveal spoilers in my reviews, but in this case what really irked me about the movie occurred near the end, and I will be discussing it. This would be a good place to stop reading if knowing the end of the movie will affect you negatively.]
Sick of dressing the dead and tired of filing the nails of the departed, Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) feels stuck at home. In his family, there really are only two choices of career for men: priest or mortician. Exhausted by corpse beautification, Michael decides to go to seminary school, despite his doubts about the existence of God. Near the end of his schooling, his teachers decide to sign him up for exorcism classes in Rome. Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins) is assigned to give Michael non-traditional, hands-on exorcism training. Much to Father Lucas’s chagrin, Michael’s suspicion is undeterred by the rituals and strange coincidences that begin to occur. Michael continues to examine without reverence the phenomena the church has labeled as possession. But Michael’s skepticism unceremoniously vanishes when his father’s death causes him overwhelming grief.
Michael adheres to reason neither because he is especially committed to finding the truth nor because he is naturally hyper-rational. He is depicted as having a childlike defiance of authority and a contrary nature. It is only the anger he feels after the trauma of his mother’s death that causes him to turn away from God.
I concede that many publicly identified non-theistic doubters share this defiant quality, but that is not because they cherish the thrill of conflict or lack the substance to discuss their ideas without being crass. It is because the only people willing to publicly come out as atheists or as skeptical of the idea of God have to be willing to defy conventional discussion, belief, and authority.
I also grant that it is often something intimate and traumatic that stirs theists to question their religious beliefs: a glaring injustice that the god described in their faith has allowed to happen or a lie they uncover about their church. It is the questioning, and the examination of their beliefs, that eventually leads some theists to abandon the idea of God altogether. Being angry with God is not atheism; it is faith.
Theists often confuse resentment of God with atheism. It has been my experience that many theists see atheists as arrogant, immature, defiant people who resent and are angry with the god they say they don’t believe in. Essentially, Michael is the stereotypical model of an atheist in the eye of theists.
It is obvious the writers of The Rite have a strong point of view: belief in God is the default position. If something is not otherwise explainable, it must be God’s doing. At the end of The Rite, Michael has to try to explain what he finds unexplainable in the world, but he cannot. He then realizes that he has turned to the devil by being skeptical of God and that he actually does believe in God. In that moment the writers prove they know little about either atheists or skeptics.
In short, Michael is nothing more than a personification of the ill-advised, foolish, and arrogant stereotype many theists have of atheists. Generally, it goes something like this: an atheist’s anger with some perceived injustice God has perpetrated against him makes him egotistical, disobedient, and insolent, but in the end, atheists will submit to their belief in God when they are faced with troubling times, because they never really disbelieved at all. It is akin to the myths of “There are no atheists in foxholes” or that “if an atheist just learns about God, she will love him.”
The typical theistic point of view is that all unexplainable occurrences can be attributed to God because theists hold God or God’s works as the default explanation. Skeptics do not have a default explanation, even when not having one means that they have to live with the discomfort of not knowing the answer.
The average skeptic may give thought to the god hypothesis, even if just for a second, because all ideas are worth considering. However, he would not default to the position that God or the devil is making someone sick or causing voices in his head. Most skeptics would require the existence of God and the devil to be conclusively proven before they could settle on it as a cause for anything or even a serious hypothesis.
It would be unusual for a reason-driven person to freak out in a moment of confusion, abandon their rationality, forgo their ruthless examination of the situation, and lay the happenings at the feet of God or the devil. I suspect most skeptics would say exactly the same thing in this situation: “I do not know what is going on, but I would like to figure it out.”
Writer Michael Petroni and director Mikael Håfström either have a point of view so shallow it would not cover their toes, or they are willfully snubbing both the atheist and skeptical communities. There is, of course, the very small chance that they are being ironic to show how insulting and idiotic the point of view of most theists is when it comes to atheism or skepticism.
To make matters worse, the plot they do offer up is unmistakably utter garbage. Both O’Donoghue’s and Hopkins’s acting is just so much emotionless drivel. I have been more convinced of the emotions of an actor at an elementary school play on the nutritional value of vegetables. The camera work, the dialogue, the pacing, and the visuals each leave the audience hungry for substance.
The only redeeming quality of The Rite is the adorable kittens that infest Rome’s streets—but even those have a sinister side. They just stand there, looking all cute with their kitteny goodness consuming the entire screen. Just when the baby cats inspire a slightly embarrassing round of coos from the audience, an actor bumbles his way into the scene and the audience members’ blissful kitty bubble is popped, sending them crashing face first into the atrocious acting litter box.
The Rite is just the right movie for the atheist or skeptic who has absolutely nothing better to think about at the moment and wants to gain insight into how they are seen by Catholics and theists in general. The beauty of the skeptical community is that there is almost always something better to consider, and very few things are worth less brain power than watching idiotic attempts at pigeonholing.