Demographics are the new Hollywood royalty. Producers don’t just make a movie, they make it for a certain age or gender group: teen boys, women over 25 or, in the case of so many year-end prestige efforts, the aesthetic, political and emotional prejudices of voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Now comes The Rite, which taps a large but largely unexploited demographic: lapsed Catholics. Produced by the team that made 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the new film is designed to shake a God-fearing sanctity, a little holy hell, back into recovering communicants. It wants to make them believe in God by first getting them to believe in Satan — if, that is, the whole thing doesn’t turn them into Wiccans.
Anthony Hopkins stars as a craggily heroic Jesuit, perhaps as penance for his three Hannibal Lecter films, but The Rite is no Silence of the Lamb of God. Scrupulously hewing to both the scriptures of Catholic dogma and the strictures of a PG-13 rating, director Mikael Hafstrom forsakes horror for atmosphere. In his effective version of Stephen King’s 1408, Hafstrom got plenty of thrills from locking a skeptic in a spooky room, and here again he sets a portentous mood in scenes in which Hopkins is cloistered with one of the possessed. These, though, are just creepy preparations for gross-out surprises that don’t materialize. The Rite is all windup, weak delivery.
Loosely based on Matt Baglio’s nonfiction book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist and scripted by Michael Petroni, the movie footnotes its fictionalized story with lots of stats — alleging, for example, that hundreds of thousands of people a year ask for exorcisms — and with a quote from John Paul II (the Reagan of Popes, John XXIII being the Kennedy) that “The devil is alive today.” Yes, many observers would say: evil has surely roiled in the predatory hearts of priests who abuse the youngest of their flock. Deflecting that cynicism is one of The Rite‘s side strategies: its priests, whatever their own shortcomings, fulfill their mission as God’s ministers to the troubled faithful
The movie’s hero, Michael Kovak (Irish actor Colin O’Donoghue), also struggles with matters of faith. The only son of a Catholic mortician (Rutger Hauer) — both of them in perpetual grief over the death years ago of Michael’s mother — he dashes his father’s hope that he becomes a partner in the family business and instead enters a seminary. But after four years he’s ready to bolt, since he’s no longer a believer. The seminary’s Father Superior (Toby Jones), seeing Michael’s skill in ministering to a young woman who manages to conveniently die in his arms, sends him off to Rome for a Vatican course in the history and practice of exorcism.
Here Michael is introduced to Father Lucas (Hopkins), a devil-dueler with a charismatic but distracted air — he stops in the middle of one exorcism to take a cell-phone call. Living alone in a cat-infested hovel, Lucas pursues his calling as the local witch doctor or dentist; people come to him to get their demons extracted. One such patient is Rosaria (Marta Gastini), a pregnant teenage girl, whom Father Lucas attends in Michael’s presence. Rosaria, or the devil inside her, can somehow intuit what’s inside a bag that Michael holds; she spits out the American slang (lickety-split) used by a sexy girl back in his hometown; her body pretzels when seized by a malignant spirit, and her face goes ashen.
Aside from these parlor and pallor tricks, The Rite forsakes the gaudier effects of the original 1973 The Exorcist. “What did you expect?” Father Lucas asks Michael. “Spinning heads? Pea soup?” Well, kinda. The already swollen subgenre of exorcism movies (the Internet Movie Database lists 175 films and TV shows on the subject) requires an occasional twist. The Rite does boast a nifty regurgitation of three big nails by Rosaria, as if she’s trying to crucify herself from the inside. The picture also has a couple of plot innovations: Father Lucas’ warning to Michael that he cannot master the rite of exorcism until he accepts the devil as his personal Satan — “You must believe in it to defeat it” — and Lucas’ own transformation, when he gets infected by the disease he’s trying to cure. Michael’s job is to exorcize the exorcist.
Would that O’Donoghue could ascend from his nice-Catholic-boy placidity to a climactic command of the role. But he’s the amateur here, Hopkins the strutting, frothing pro, who makes for fun watching even as he soars into excess and lands in the shallow end. (As critic Alan Brien once wrote of Laurence Olivier, “There is a kind of bad acting of which only a great actor is capable.”) I Am Legend‘s Alice Braga drops by as a journalist who wants the scoop on exorcism. She’s here because every film needs a girl — just not this one, Braga’s face being too gorgeous, restless and simply too intelligent for this role. Gastini is also impressive, but The Rite lets her character down when Rosaria is in a hospital under suicide watch and, oops, nobody’s watching her. A movie that wants us to believe in God and the devil has a duty to make us believe in it. And The Rite fails that essential cinematic covenant.
At the end we learn that the real Father Lucas performed more than 2,000 exorcisms, and that the priest who was the source for the Michael character is a practicing exorcist in Chicago. In this roundabout way, a sequel is promised or threatened. But even an agnostic could tell you that two Rites still make a wrong.