Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Rite

Genre: Horror
Premise: A young priest who does not believe in the Devil travels to Rome to study at an Exorcism School.
About: Oh yeah baby. It’s Halloween Week! Why the hell was I thinking of reviewing Wanderlust on Halloween Week? Instead I’ve decided to review a more appropriate script, The Rite. The Rite will star Anthony Hopkins, Alice Braga, and an unknown actor in the starring role (at least he’s unknown to me). It’s directed by Michael Hafstrom, who directed 2007’s fun Steven King adaptation, 1408. Michael Petroni adapted the screenplay from a book by Matt Baglio. In 1994, Petroni moved to Los Angeles to study screenwriting at the AFI Conservatory, graduating in 1996. While at AFI, he wrote and directed his first feature, Till Human Voices Wake Us, starring Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter. He also wrote The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and the new upcoming Narnia flick, The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader.
Writer: Michael Petroni (based on the book by Matt Baglio)
Details: 123 pages – April 2008 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

No offense to some of the recent writers whose scripts I’ve reviewed, but man can you tell when someone knows how to write. Writing isn’t about dictating real life events word for word. It’s about constructing those events in a dramatically entertaining way for an audience. It’s about knowing when to step on the gas and when to ease up. It’s about ratcheting up the conflict when the audience wants it, and keeping it subtle in the meantime. Yesterday my reading experience was pure frustration. I kept thinking, “Is this good and I’m just not getting it?” Today reminded me what real writing reads like.

These days, all you need to do is look around to see to see how many people are acting out their most sinful thoughts. We’re devolving as a species, and the devil is using it as a means to get inside of us. Over 500,000 possessions were reported last year. Priests are our last line of defense against this growing problem. For that reason, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI instructed all bishops of the Catholic Church to appoint an exorcist in every diocese world wide. But before these exorcists can operate, someone has to teach them.

Thomas is an intelligent 24 year old embalmer for his father’s lifelong business, a funeral home. Close to retirement, he wants Thomas to take over when he leaves. But Thomas has other plans. He wants to get an education. He wants to live a normal life.

But a normal life requires schooling, and his father has made it clear that you don’t need an education to run a funeral home. If Thomas is going to go to school, he’ll need to find the money himself. That’s when he comes up with a plan. If you pledge your life to God, the church will pay for your education. In a move that would surely guarantee his spot in Hell if Thomas believed in such a place, Thomas plans to get his four years of education, then, before taking his vows, say “thanks but no thanks.”

As the climax for his plan approaches, one of the priests sees Thomas perform an amazing act of God without a shred of fear. He believes Thomas is destined for bigger things and suggests he consider becoming an exorcist. Thomas is reluctant, but the priest convinces him to go to Exorcism School in Rome for two months. If he doesn’t like it, he's lost nothing.

Once at this school, Thomas is thrust into lectures about exorcism protocol, exorcism subjects, and the spookiest of the teachings, documentation of past exorcisms. But even the most spectacular of cases – and some are truly horrifying – are yawn-inducing as far as Thomas is concerned. He knows there’s a rational explanation behind everything and all this nonsense about God and the Devil are clouding these priests’ ability to judge.

The head priest senses Thomas’ skepticism and decides to send him off to one of their more “unorthodox” priests who does his work off-campus.

Indeed Father Carmine lives by his own code. There’s a protocol to go through before performing exorcisms. You have to see if a patient is mentally unstable. You have to rule out multiple personalities or trauma or psychological issues. Carmine couldn't care less about that shit. If he thinks someone’s possessed, it’s time to slam a cross onto their forehead and batter them with the word of God.

It just so happens Thomas walks in during one of Father Carmine’s exorcisms, a young 17 year old pregnant woman named Rosaria. The event is horrifying, this young girl doing and saying the most unimaginable things. But even after what he’s seen, Thomas still believes that her problems can be explained away through abuse and trauma.

The rest of the story centers on Thomas and Carmine’s relationship as Carmine takes him through the daily treatment of his clientele. Even when these subjects bring up personal issues about Thomas’ life, he is convinced they’ve either done research or heard information about him from other parties. He knows that it is impossible for a person to be possessed by the devil. Of course, at some point, this conviction will be tested, as he will have to perform the exorcism to end all exorcisms, a task so impossible he will need to believe if he has any chance in succeeding.

I really really liked this screenplay. First of all, this is exactly what I was talking about when I reviewed our last exorcism script. In that review, I talked about how every exorcism movie is about some priest coming into a town to perform an exorcism on some woman. EVERY ONE! Borrr-ing. So taking the exorcism idea and coming at it from the angle of a school was, in many ways, genius. It’s a great reminder that finding a new angle to a tired subject matter just requires a little thought.

Also, as dumbed down as this sounds, this script proves how effective the “crazy mentor character” is. I was talking about this in my review of The King's Speech the other day (with the part that Geoffrey Rush plays). There’s something about a mentor who does things “his own way” that’s simply fun to watch. It works here with Father Carmine, it worked in The King's Speech, it’s one of the reasons Karate Kid is so popular. About the only time it hasn’t worked is in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.

The construction of Thomas’ character here is also well done. We have a built in fatal flaw – he doesn’t believe. He has a complicated unresolved relationship with his father that we keep going back to. He’s resistant to the job, which infuses most of the scenes with conflict. We understand where the character’s been. We understand where the character wants to go. So many times I don’t know who a character is in a screenplay so it’s refreshing when the writer takes the time to map him out like he does Thomas here.

I think the one challenge for the script was the tricky notion of putting a priest in Exorcism School who didn’t believe in God. This was an essential component to the script working, yet not a logical situation. Petroni (or Baglio) decided to use this desire for education as the reasoning behind why someone who didn’t believe in God would join the priesthood, and it’s admittedly the one conceit you have to make in order to buy into the premise, but I think he gets away with it. And I have to admit, it was a lot more interesting than the tired choice we’re used to seeing , which is to have someone close to the priest die right as he’s starting his journey.

Another dramatic mainstay the screenwriting gurus will tell you is that your main character should have a goal and that that goal should drive the plot. So in The Exorcism, the goal is to exorcise the demon from the girl. In Borrelli’s script, it’s the same thing. This approach keeps the point of the story crystal clear to the audience. But The Rite doesn’t do this. There is no single goal for our protagonist, which gives the story an uncertain quality. We’re not quite sure where it’s going. Which is good if it works, but usually if this goes on for too long, an audience will check out. So how does The Rite make it work?

Well Petroni shifts the focus of the movie from a physical goal to an internal question. Will Thomas believe or not? The answer to that question becomes the driving force of the story. It’s a risky move that I see fail way more than I see succeed because it just doesn’t give the story the same driving force a goal does. But because the characters are so compelling here, because the situations are so interesting, and because we want to find out what happens with Thomas, Petroni makes it work.

If I had a beef with the script, it’s that the ending gets a little crazy. One of the effects of focusing on several exorcisms instead of one is that you have to resolve them all, and with Thomas running around at the end to see all these threads to their conclusion, the finale feels a little scattershot.

But overall, I enjoyed this way too much to let that bother me. A highly recommended read.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: A big reason why this script works is that it’s steeped in conflict. Thomas and his father don’t agree on his direction in life. Thomas doesn’t believe in God. Thomas doesn’t believe in Exorcism School. Thomas doesn’t agree with Carmine’s methods or practice. Everywhere you look in this script, two diametrically opposed ideas are colliding, and it’s the resulting conflict that brings so much entertainment to the ride. Remember, as a story teller, conflict is always your best friend!