The Rite, a stage play too heinous to be consumed en masse, captures innate psycho-sexual energy inherent to all human beings and hidden under our exterior. A story presented in two acts. Nine scenes. Each scene is an interrogation. The troupe of traveling stage performers, charged with obscenity, form a ménage á trois of fragile persona. Hans Wilkemman (Gunnar Björnstrand), as the head of the troupe, attempts to soften the blow for his wife, the indelible Ingrid Thulin, as the Judge (Erik Hell) meets face-to-face individually to get a sense of the crime. The third a final member of the troupe, the head of the ménage a Trois, and passionate lover to Thulin’s character and confidant of Hans, Sebastian (Anders Ek)- a messily confused affair of overdeveloped senses clashing with uniform traditionalist, giving Bergman a perfect excuse to provoke his audience in every sense imaginable, flowing to the conclusion and presentation of The Rite.
The dynamics presented between the three are unique. The intimate persona shared behind closed doors is instantly torn down by the judge, who’s repulsed by the expressionism, taking their flimsy veil of truth they present under oath as a falsified cry for help. Sebastian, while isolated from others, turns from tortured artist to a hardened realist. His fleeting scene with Claudia (Thulin) is Bergman at his absolute most, challenging our understanding of sex and the social construction of the act. He ends that scene in a blaze of agony, signifying in visual terms the troupes deal with categorized evil of performance art. It’s a trio that has left the ground and operates above the audience, poking fun at their expense.
Exemplified by the running clown makeup, and the final meeting between Hans and his wife, Claudia, in the dressing room of a circus. It’s brilliant chamber theater, wholly intimate, with piercing dialogue that speaks to the utter narcissism of these characters. It turns vile in this scene, as Claudia ramps up the potency of her interactions and all the dirt get put into the open. Anxiety drips off every word she speaks as her life gets examined in uncomfortable ways that present truths she has no desire of confronting. It’s all a build-up towards her meeting with the judge. The plot, each of the seven scenes before the finale, all build pieces of her character that make that final meeting so captivating. The dueling nature of chamber theater, shot by Sven Nykvist, captures the sheer agony of each character in wider close-ups – including the judge who reconciles with his involvement in this cruelty by visiting the priest played by Ingmar Bergman. It asks how art of this obtrusive finds a place in one psyche and is it sacrilege or our god-given right to perform.
It all culminates in the presentation of the act – a mock-pagan staging, with the overdramatized, blasphemous masks and costumes, leads to mock-pornography that purposefully provokes.
In reality, it’s Bergman reconciling with his abhorrent art and the judge serving as the critic who finds the act a tad bit “melodramatic” before passing on. The front of The Rite itself mirrors Bergman’s provocation throughout his career, the invasive side of his art that begs the question of the filmmaker. And there’s no mistake when Bergman places himself as the priest, marking himself as the one truth – an overdeveloped narcissism, probing his psyche and expressing his doubts in all institutions and practices.
In closing, it’s chamber theater that’s far more grounded than his ethereal pieces of art that reach for a higher plane of existence. The Rite stays on the ground but pushes people with the contents of its message. On the surface, it’s one of Bergman’s more superficial films, but the discussion at the center is undoubtedly one of his most fascinating. I’ll certainly be in the minority here, but this is one of his best films.