Offering moderately scary Roman Catholic “gotchas!” to a global film audience of all creeds, The Rite comes from director Mikael Hafstrom, whose previous film was the stylish supernatural thriller 1408.
This one’s more conventional. But that’s the exorcism sub-genre for you. The crucifix-shaped shadow of The Exorcist hangs heavy over each new contributor to the mythology. At one point in The Rite, Rome’s most aggressive devil exterminator, played by Anthony Hopkins, answers his young protege’s mutterings with the retort: “What did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?” Someone had to acknowledge the vomiting, levitating elephant in the room.
Given its PG-13 rating, The Rite seems designed expressly to secure for itself some of the millions made by The Exorcism of Emily Rose, another medium-budget devil tale based loosely on a book designated as nonfiction. Truth and lies, this much we know from The Rite: Trouble will follow you in earnest if your father is a tight-lipped Midwestern mortician played by Rutger Hauer.
Young, brooding Michael, played by young, brooding Irish stage actor Colin O’Donoghue, opts out of the family business to become a seminary student but lacks the spiritual commitment to go all the way. Then a tragic accident and a slyly blackmailing priest (played by Toby Jones) conspire to send Michael to Rome on a training program for exorcists. (This sounds funnier than it plays.) There he’s assigned to shadow Father Lucas, the Hopkins character, a wizened pro surrounded by stray cats and stray Catholics badly in need of Lucifer removal. The wakeup call for Michael’s disbelieving soul comes in the person of a possessed, pregnant Roman teenager given sharp, scary specificity by Marta Gastini.
For an hour, The Rite, as scripted by Michael Petroni, delivers the expected, but with panache. Shooting in Italy and Hungary, with a quick pass through the Chicago area, director Hafstrom and cinematographer Ben Davis lend the locations a handsome burnished look. The supporting cast is unusually strong, with straight-faced, solemn-browed turns from Ciaran Hinds (as Father Xavier, one of Michael’s tutors) and from the eternally welcome Alice Braga, as the journalist looking to personalize the story of why the Vatican has redoubled its exorcism efforts lately.
Why? Because evil is everywhere, that’s why, and if evil is everywhere, then the actor who cannot seem to wriggle out from under the legacy of Hannibal Lecter can never be far away. Hopkins speaks a fair amount of workmanlike, subtitled Italian in The Rite, and he seems more focused and engaged for this assignment (after looking lost in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). Sadly, though, his co-star — O’Donoghue — barely registers on screen. Going for low-key and quietly troubled, the actor ends up under-reacting to everything. There is, however, a crimson-eyed demon mule that makes an appearance. An epilogue title card tells us that Father Michael (fictional, based on a reallife California exorcist) continues his efforts at his parish “near Chicago.” Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to see a man about a demon.