The Rite ★★★★½

An intimate, at times claustrophobic work, full of tight close-ups on nervous faces, often beaded with sweat or smeared with disintegrating stage make-up, this film is designed to mess with your head even as it distracts you with titillating but irrelevant questions. Why are these actors in trouble? Who is this judge? What are the stakes? Why is Sebastian always wearing sunglasses, when he has Anders Ek's eyes behind them?

We expect Ingrid Thulin to steal the show in her absurd black wig. Even before she speaks -- and it's quite awhile before she does -- both her character's neurosis and talent at hiding and/or coping with it manage to leap off her outlandishly beautiful face. It's a rare group of actors who can balance her out, but if anyone can it's Gunnar Björnstrand and Anders Ek -- but Erik Hell, playing the skeptical, smelly old judge, holds his own, too. His face is as fascinating as anyone's in a Bergman film. It always winds up being about the faces, because Sven Effing Nykvist. But the story, too, what story there is, it's really his, as he is confronted by the archetypal power of the play, the Rite, the actors eventually perform for him.

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