Director: Mikael Håfström
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue
Runtime: 113 Minutes
If you go to Warner Bros’ website for The Rite, you can choose to visit two very different pages. The first is “True Stories,” which provides links to a number of respectable articles about the rising demand for exorcists in the Catholic world, particularly in the years since Pope John Paul II apparently asked each American bishop to appoint a priest to perform exorcisms. On the other webpage, you can go to “Exorcist Class” yourself, and find out mysterious facts about the rite of exorcism whilst looking at Polaroids of the possessed.
The film has its basis in a kind of realism, but is happy to mix this unashamedly with the modern horror movie’s love for exorcists, and turn it into a spectacle. The Rite was inspired by a book by Matt Baglio, who investigated the process of exorcism as taught in a Vatican-sponsored institution in Rome and as practiced by Californian priest Gary Thomas. The experiences that cemented the faith of both Thomas and Baglio are adapted into a relationship between the clerical sceptics Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) and Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), with a good-looking jourrnalist (Alice Brago) thrown in for good measure. Lucas is the most experienced exorcist in Rome, but his encounter with the young Kovak bring him his greatest task yet.
Their meeting in Rome catalyses a series of events that place the men in what’s either a profound spiritual journey or an awful nightmare: the film does make up its mind about which one of these gets priority, but with little authority. Mikael Håfström, who directed John Cusack in Stephen King adaptation 1408, knows how to pull off the jumps and chills of the story alongside its more sincere psychological investigation, helped by the Irish actor O’Donoghue’s lead performance. But Hopkins’ supporting turn ruins a lot of this work. Lucas is meant to be an enigmatic figure, and Hannibal Lecter certainly knows how to yell at spirits in Latin and go a bit crazy in the process. When the unorthodox priest is filmed in his private world, however, Hopkins’ supposedly casual delivery of his lines sounds feeble, and the whole scenario loses conviction.
He ends up fighting with the sound effects in the finale, as his character’s own mania is enacted at one point by Hopkins’ showboating accent, and at another by the post-production team. Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones and Ciarán Hinds make up the rest of the main ensemble, but all of them would have done a better job than the starrier cast member had they landed his role.