REVIEW: The Rite Is a Super-Serious Movie About a Hottie in a Cassock (and It's Not Anthony Hopkins)
I was a wee girl in Catholic school when The Exorcist was released, and the nuns stood before us with a stern admonishment: The Vatican -- or just someone in a dress and a pointy hat -- had decreed that watching this movie might actually cause viewers to become possessed by the devil. While this caused some of my classmates to rush out and see it, I, obedient tyke that I was, just said NO to demons.
I didn't see The Exorcist until years later, and I much prefer John Boorman's Exorcist II: The Heretic, anyway, because James Earl Jones in a locust headdress is about as glam rock as it gets. I was hoping, admittedly for no good reason, that Mikael Håfström's The Rite would be similar. It's not. This is a serious movie -- inspired by true events! an early title card tells us -- about the good men of the cloth who fight the good fight against Beelzebub, which requires first acknowledging that he exists. The result is a weird mingling of earnest-as-heck Catholic theology and "Boo! Got ya!" cuts, with a few bloody, vomited nails -- presumably eaten right off the crucifix, which, you've got to admit, is when they're at their freshest -- thrown in for good measure.
Colin O'Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, a hot young seminarian who's having a crisis of faith. Previously, he was on track to take over the funeral-home business run by his father (a whiskery Rutger Hauer); for reasons that aren't quite clear, he decides priest school is the better choice. But now that he's almost done with the four-year pre-ordination boot camp, he thinks he wants out. His father superior (Tobey Jones in a cassock), however, sees a spark of something -- and I'll keep it clean here, I promise -- in this extraordinarily good-looking young man, and taps him to attend a special exorcism training class in Rome, which is a lot less exciting than it sounds: Basically, it's Ciaran Hinds in full Vatican drag, giving a Power Point presentation.
But for Michael, there's an extracurricular component as well: He's dispatched to the charming, rustic Italianate home of ace exorcist -- AKA "The Exorciser," maybe? -- Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), who invites Michael to assist as he attempts to cast demons out of a thrashing, bashing, trash-talking pregnant teenager. Michael is horrified by what he sees -- he thinks the girl needs a shrink, not a priest, and says so outright -- but Father Lucas just chuckles and fixes Michael with his bright-blue stare.
He knows that Michael does have a gift, and not just the gift of hotness (which is apparent to anyone who has eyes to see, including the young journalist, played by a sadly underused Alice Braga, who becomes Michael's friend and confidante). So although he and Michael engage in some pretty hot and heavy-duty theologian-speak ("The devil exists!" "Does not!" "Does so!"), in the end they become fast friends, having bonded over various subjects' guttural ramblings, eyes rolling back in heads, and what not.
The Rite -- based partly on Matt Baglio's book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, adapted by Michael Petroni -- doesn't know if it wants to be a scarefest or a weighty rumination on the necessity of exorcism in the modern world. (I haven't seen The Last Exorcism, so I can't tell you how it compares.) But if The Rite isn't exactly good, it's also surprisingly not-terrible, thanks in part to Håfström's clear preference for spooky atmospherics -- dark figures hunched in doorways, average, middle-class apartments that somehow look chilly despite their homey furnishings -- rather than full-on gross-outs (though the movie does contain a few of those, perhaps as a way of ensuring that no one falls asleep during its numerous instances of rosary-rattling and holy-water-sprinkling).
As Michael, O' Donoghue -- a young Irish actor who's quite good with the American accent -- has some pretty convincing moments. The best of them occurs early on when, amid his own doubt-fest, Michael is forced to muster the wherewithal to administer last rites to a dying girl: Without overplaying the moment, he lets us feel its weight. But this really is Hopkins' show, and he goes all out with full-on thespian nuttiness. He starts out subdued, as Father Lucas welcomes Michael to his humble abode, a pretty, country-ish cottage crawling with mischievous, blasé cats. He asserts, deadpan, that he's stopped bothering to give them names, because they're not ever going to come when you call, are they? Later, he gets to engage in some really crazy stuff, including a growly-scary-kooky monologue that he delivers with outright greasepaint glee. Hopkins is having a blast, and he's fun to watch. His finest moment may be the one in which he breaks from his exorcising routine to take a call on his cell, with an "I can't talk now, I'm acting" air of self-referential casualness. Watching The Rite will not, I can attest, cause you to become possessed by the devil; it's too tasteful for that. He knows his time is better spent elsewhere, and besides, he's still got a backlog of Jersey Shore to get through.