Sometimes, you have a calling. Sometimes, you’re born into the family business. Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) is dealing with a bit of both. He’s the son of an undertaker, and has the family funeral home to run, if he so chooses. Otherwise, if he doesn’t want to be a mortician, he can follow the other family vocation and become a priest. Spending his whole life wrist-deep in corpses doesn’t sound appealing, so Michael takes up the collar and heads off to seminary.
The only problem with this whole line of work is that Michael doesn’t exactly believe in God or want to be a Catholic priest. His initial plan, to attend four years of college on Rome’s dime, doesn’t work out so well when he is told by his advisor that he either finishes school and takes up the vow of priesthood, or his scholarships become student loans and he’s saddled with $100,000 worth of college bills. However, his advisor gives him an out: if he goes to Rome for a few months to learn to be an exorcist, then once he gets back he can decide whether or not he’s in or out of the absolution game.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in the Vatican’s exorcist college, then do as Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins) does. He’s not the most traditional exorcist, according to Kovak’s teacher, but he’s effective. However, who does the exorcism when the exorcist gets possessed?
If The Rite has one saving grace that elevates the movie from slightly boring to entertaining, it’s the work of Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins, who is aging from Hannibal Lecter into the world’s favorite creepy grandfather, really turns on the charm and turns up the energy in the second half of the film. His accents change wildly. He modulates his voice from his normal Father Lucas Trevant voice to his possessed vocal inflection. His expressions change wildly as the CGI transformation crawls along his skin. His eyes roll in his head. His grin becomes a leer.
In short, Hopkins does everything possible to make sure this movie ends on a high note. Hopkins goes so far into camp territory that he may as well pitch a tent and take archery lessons, and for the most part, it’s wildly entertaining.
The same can’t be said of the performances of Alice Braga, whose main gift to the production is nice hair, and Colin O’Donoghue, whose main asset is that he looks like Milo Ventimiglia with an unconvincing American accent. Ciarán Hinds (as Vatican exorcism professor, Father Xavier) and Rutger Hauer (as Michael’s father, Istvan Kovak) are mostly wasted in limited roles that give them very little to do.
The direction by Mikael Håfström (1408) is fine, but nothing special. The film seems to be taking a lot of its cues from other exorcism-based horror films, but it doesn’t go over the top like most of them do. It also doesn’t go for realism quite like The Last Exorcism did, either. It kind of splits the difference, with a realistic first seventy-five percent and an outlandish final quarter that will inevitably leave neither side completely satisfied.
Still, from a technical standpoint, the movie looks wonderful. Håfström makes great use of the city of Rome and his interior locations are all shot beautifully. The scenes in which Kovak the younger wanders through the Vatican and attends various classes are all quite beautiful, and after seeing the movie you’ll probably want to go visit Rome, even if it is infested with cats.
The film’s awkward attempt to straddle two worlds is also reflected in the script by Michael Petroni, based off of Matt Baglio’s book. At times, the dialogue tries to reach for depth and meaning. At other times it shoots for comedy value. Sometimes, it does both of these things at once, to its detriment.
Had it gone for realism and given Father Lucas a mental illness, then it would have been mediocre but consistent. Veering wildly into supernatural horror territory offers a glimpse of what might have been had all the demonic possession victims eaten as much scenery as Hopkins did, which could have made the film a wildly fun mess.
As it stands, The Rite is fine for fans of exorcism films or Anthony Hopkins fanatics, but it’s nothing special for anyone else. Between Hopkins giving a fun performance and some lovely shots of moody old buildings embraced by shadows, The Rite is entertaining enough to recommend, but not highly.
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