Here is the biggest problem with “The Rite”. It’s about exorcisms, and every exorcism movie from now until the end of time is going to be measured against “The Exorcist”, an unfair comparison because as you all know, “The Exorcist” is the scariest movie of all time (at least in this hack’s humble opinion, and I am right and you are wrong, unless you agree with me, then you’re right, too). That said, Mikael Håfström’s new horror film handles itself pretty well, for most of the movie at least.
“The Rite” is the story of Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), a reluctant seminary student. In his family, ruled by patriarch Rutger Hauer, you’re either a mortician or a priest, so Michael goes through four years of priest boot camp, only to pull out in the final moments before becoming an actual priest. You’d think before going through all that training, hesitantly or otherwise, you’d have definite answers to a few key questions, like, “do I believe in God?” But that’s now how Michael rolls, he’s just sick of sewing corpse’s mouths shut, and painting dead women’s fingernails in the basement of his family home, and this is his only other option. After a freak accident, where Michael is compelled to give last rights to a dying girl, one of his professor priests basically blackmails Michael, or at least strong arms him, into taking a crash course on exorcism in Rome. The Catholic Church has decided to combat rising reports of demonic possession by placing a certified exorcist in each diesis, hence the creation of an exorcism school.
Michael is a skeptic who believes more in science and psychology than claims of possession, and he gives voice to his doubts. His antics earn him scowling looks from nuns and reprimands from his teachers, though along the way he does befriend Angeline (Alice Braga), a journalist who is taking the class just to see what all the hubbub is about. Eventually Michael is such a pest that Father Xavier (Cirián Hinds), the head of the program, sends him off to see Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), an exorcism rock star. Lucas has unconventional methods, but he gets results. Over the years he’s officiated more than 2000 “soul liberations”, most successful, but the real question is at what cost does he achieve his end? And is it worth it? While Lucas treats a pregnant 16-year old (Marta Gastini) who pukes up crucifixion nails and speaks in tongues, Michael watches, projecting his lack of faith onto the proceedings, trying to figure out if he’s being conned or not. This portion of the film calls to mind buddy cop movies where the rookie rides along with the seasoned vet, trying to figure out the game. Is Lucas an authentic warrior in the battle against the devil, or is he a cheap shyster who has a very literal bag of tricks (a bag that is occasionally full of frogs)?
Hopkins gives a great performance as Lucas, for most of the movie. He is by turns deeply faithful and profoundly heretical, grimly serious and wryly funny, and he’s not above answering his cell phone mid-exorcism. Near the end, however, he goes off the deep end. O’Donoghue is passable as Michael. The cynical, almost cocky, guise he wears fits his disbelief, and when he begins to come around, realizing the true nature of the forces he may or may not be dealing with, his demeanor changes to one on of the frightened young man that he is. Braga’s character is completely unnecessary. “The Rite” is based on a book by Rome-based journalist Matt Baglio, who, like Angeline, actually went through an exorcism course, but the only real purpose she serves in the story, aside from adding a pretty female presence, is to give Michael an exorcism appropriate version of the “big game” speech so he can get pumped up to go exorcise, woo! Other than that, she serves no real function in the film.
Through the first two-thirds, maybe even three-fourths of the movie, “The Rite” is solid. It’s not great or original, you’ve seen the young girl possessed by the devil many times on film, but it’s at least decent. There are some jumpy moments, the atmosphere is tense and spooky, and the look and sound design of the film help create an overall feeling of dread. Religious imagery abounds, which you well know always amplifies the creepiness factor, and Håfström uses the streets and architecture (and McDonald’s product placement) of Rome to great effect. Add to that a story where you, like Michael, aren’t sure if you should believe or remain skeptical, and what you have in front of you seems to be a worthwhile religious horror movie. You’re trucking along, watching “The Rite”, and enjoying it well enough, but then, as you’ve probably gathered at this point, things start to go wrong, horribly wrong, and they keep going wrong, and by the end things have gone completely off the rails. Though you do get to see Anthony Hopkins backhand a small child, which is something, the film simply loses it, becoming a silly cliché, with Hopkins chewing up scenery like a mule, and an ending that is nothing short of maddening.