'the Rite' pits against each other two ancient forms dedicated to ordering human experience - the Law/State and Art, as a dying civil servant investigates a theatrical troupe charged with obscenity.
Most Bergman films are rigorously unafraid to be theatrical, stagebound, because the theatre can act as both a metaphor and provide the atmosphere of claustrophobic interiority that comprises Bergman's view of the world, and the characters who suffer within it. 'The Rite' takes Bergman's theatricality to extremes. The film, with its austere, monochrome mise-en-scene, is divided into scenes, each one comprising theatrical exchanges between two people, which follow a very theatrical arc of conflict, power struggles and revelation. These dialogues are framed by two stand-offs between the civil servant and the group.
As this latter conflict suggests, there is slippage in the dialogues between individuals and their professional lives, with antagonists attempting to pierce the impregnability of the latter, by preying on the weakness of the former, often linked to failure in the body (excessive sweat, impotence etc.). so, for example, while Sebastian is powerless against the Judge as a civil servant, his powers to enforce the law and control his behaviour, he can overpower him as a man with physical problems, spiritual absences and feelings of inferiority.
In this way, the deliberate theatricality expresses a sustained exercise in role play. It allegorises an age-old conflict between Art and Society, about the limits set by one on the other; on the aesthetic imperatives of one to transgress those limits in order to reveal the truth to the other; on the irony that those who are Artists, who seek to comment on society, or talk to the people who live in it, must themselves live in society, and obey its rules. Conversely, Society and its institutions are an Art, a creation, a particular, formal interpretation of human motivation.
The film is called 'The Rite', which is the name of the 'number' (as the subtitles endearingly have it) under investigation. The 'rite' has religious overtones, reminding us (as Bergman did in 'The Seventh Seal') that theatre developed out of religious rites. The theatre trio are known as 'Les Riens' (the Nothings), and the rite they are performing might be a funeral rite, the rite for a man about to die. The rite is the Judge's way of coming to terms with his death, his life, his body, his love life, his lack of family and children, his unquestioning devotion to work. We only learn about him in terms of the others, or in reaction to them. The artists are merely priests presiding over his death, forcing him to confess, returning him to the primeval truth of Death, a force all the legal apparatus in the world cannot unsay. Unlike Antonius Block, who tried to evade Death by questioning it, the Judge seeks to come to terms with it, reconcile himself to it, and to life, for good and ill. And the only way you can do this is through Art, which is bigger, more powerful, more mysterious, and, ultimately, more frightening, than its votaries.