What do you call an Exorcist-inspired film free of projectile pea soup and set in Rome? Not too bad, actually.
As the son of a mortician (Rutger Hauer), there were only two life paths for Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue): mortician or priest. After four years in seminary, Michael doesn’t feel he has the faith to perform the duties of the clergy and makes plans to leave. Under recommendation, Michael attends a course in exorcism given at the Vatican itself, but it isn’t until he meets Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins) that Michael has his faith challenged directly. Is what he’s seeing truly demonic possession or merely the mentally ill?
The Rite unfolds like an above-average television pilot. The advertising for the film doesn’t reveal the real plot, the story of a priest-in-training struggling to come to terms with his own faith while learning the ropes of performing exorcisms. Viewers follow the trainee as his doubts are called into question by mounting evidence, but the film wisely takes its time building up to the ending. By the time the credits roll, viewers may find they’ve invested enough time to wonder what may become of Michael, and that’s interesting considering that the studio has chosen to unload it at this time.
The back story is used for setup, but there’s real potential there especially for a sequel or a series. Before being recommended to the exorcism course, Father Matthew (Toby Jones) intimates that reports of demonic possession are on the rise while the number priests to combat them is declining. More to the point, Michael demonstrates that he’s able to deal with the unusual phenomenon associated with such things, such as working with his father “serving the needs of the dead” at their funeral home. As the film progresses, a conspiracy unfolds as a secondary plot, as if Michael is destined for greatness in the battle for the souls of humanity and that the forces of darkness hope he abandons that potential. This extra layer gives The Rite more weight than other would-be neo Exorcist films and doesn’t abuse the privilege.
Sir Anthony Hopkins as a mentoring yet unorthodox exorcist turns in his usual top-value performance, but it isn’t anything he hasn’t done for Hannibal Lector or any of a handful of other similar acting parts. Alice Braga’s character of Angeline seems mostly to be a plot device to fill numerous roles (convenient information, worldly temptation, shoulder to cry on, sidekick for the finale) but isn’t given enough material or screen time to rise above any of them. While the story here is complete and self-contained, it would still be interesting to see this idea reworked into a series: a young exorcist with the right stuff traveling with a journalist investigating reports of demonic activity (and the obligatory recurring bad guy has already had the priest on its radar for years.)
(a three skull recommendation out of four)