With Colin O’Donoghue, Anthony Hopkins, Alice Braga, Rutger Hauer, Ciarán Hinds. Directed by Mikael Håfström. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images, and language including sexual references. 112 minutes.
When THE RITE announces it was “inspired by true events” and “suggested” by a book, those weasel words should warn you not to believe anything you see. Apparently, the Vatican has undertaken to train a cadre of priests in the ancient Catholic rite of exorcising demons and you should be as skeptical as the main character about everything else. Of course, it’s only going down the same road that was blazed nearly forty years ago by “The Exorcist.” There’s even a nodding reference to the earlier film.
Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) doesn’t know what to do with his life. He feels his choices are limited to joining his father’s (Rutger Hauer) funeral business or entering the priesthood. He decides to do the latter, thinking that he can always bail out before taking his final vows. See, Michael has “doubts” – about God, about sin – but a kindly mentor (Toby Jones) enlists him for the Vatican’s exorcist program. If after completing his work Michael still wants out, he’ll be free to go.
So Michael troops off to Rome where he catches the eye of a woman (Alice Braga) in the class, as well as that of the instructor (Ciarán Hinds). Still full of doubt, he’s sent to observe Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), a leading authority – and practitioner – of exorcism. Michael is allowed to assist Father Lucas in a few cases and you know it’s only a matter of time before his own faith, or lack thereof, will be sorely tested.
As a story, this is strictly by-the-numbers. The demons torture and contort their victims while getting them to spout lies and some nasty truths about those trying to remove them. In between these hellish bouts, Michael and Father Lucas argue whether possession is a real phenomenon or merely a sign of mental illness. It’s no surprise that the movie finds medical science falling short.
What’s surprising is the effort that has been put into this run-of-the-mill religious horrorfest. Although O’Donoghue is a newcomer, the rest of the international cast has done outstanding work elsewhere, and tries not to make it too obvious that they’re slumming here. The exception is Hopkins, who doesn’t so much turn in a bad performance as allow himself to go all-out chewing the scenery. Perhaps that’s why he does films like this and last year’s “Wolfman” – it allows him to unleash his inner ham.
The Rome tourist board is unlikely to use this film in their promotions, as it presents the city as dark, dank, and overrun with cats. (The film was shot in Rome and in Budapest; to American viewers all those old European cities look alike.) Still, director Mikael Håfström (“Derailed,” “1408”) puts a glossy spin on some very tired material. It’s a bit long, but for those primed to both laugh at and get the occasional jolt from a cheesy horror film, it’s not without its pleasures (and you won’t soon forget the demon mule).
“The Rite” may not have the right stuff, but it does make you wish that they will still producing “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.