"What were you expecting, spinning heads? Pea soup?," Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins) asks of both his young liege (Colin O'Donoghue) and the audience for 'The Rite,' which is no 'Exorcist' and it knows it. Heck, it even pales in comparison to 2010's 'The Last Exorcism' when it comes to weighing a skeptic's reasoning against displays of supernatural mischief. But for a good while, it's got a handsome sheen in its favor and it dares to evoke something resembling a nuanced performance out of Hopkins, before having him succumb to his recent scenery-chewing habits.
This movie is proudly "inspired by true events," of course; Michael Petroni's screenplay was "suggested" by reporter Matt Baglio's book, so make of that what you will. The real-life Father Gary Thomas has been replaced by young buck Michael Kovak (O'Donoghue), driven to seminary school by longstanding issues with his father, the mortician (Rutger Hauer) who embalmed Mommy when the time came. After four years of study, Michael decides that maybe he isn't cut out for the clergy, but after Father Superior (Toby Jones) suggests that his scholarship would be converted into substantial student loans should he leave, he sucks it up and heads off to the Vatican for a two-month crash course in the rituals of exorcism.
There, under the tutelage of Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds), he is encouraged to pay Father Lucas a visit. An old hand at this type of thing, Lucas allows Matthew to observe as he treats a number of possessed individuals -- namely, a pregnant teenage girl (Marta Gastini) -- and casts a fair amount of doubt on whether or not each occurrence can be chalked up strictly to science. And Hopkins, at least early on, is good in the movie, better than he's been in some time (mind you, hardly any of us saw 'The City of Your Final Destination,' but compared to 'The Wolfman' and that Woody Allen flick, this resembles progress). He brings just enough warmth to the role, that of the occasional skeptic who's encountered enough phenomena to keep his faith in check, and his built-in gravitas serves him well enough once required to intensely recite Italian and Latin.
O'Donoghue, pretty and prone to pouting, seems appropriately outmatched by the veteran of stage and screen, but his character is mostly defined by flashback trauma and the tidy talking points of a non-believer. The young Irish actor's not bad -- and his American accent is actually quite good -- but it's hard to buy that he's a lost soul worth saving, let alone worth following around for the better part of two hours. As if to further reinforce the liberties with which the film was made, we're offered up a lone, non-possessed, non-nun supporting actress in the form of journalist Angeline (Alice Braga) to balance out the male-heavy ranks of the church, and with all due respect to Baglio, the two journalists couldn't resemble one another less. She doesn't play a token love interest so much as a sidekick/witness, and like O'Donoghue, the best that can be said is that she is pretty and distinctly Not Bad.
Set in Rome and shot in Romania, 'The Rite' isn't lacking for moody architecture, and director Mikael Håfström ('1408,' the long-shelved 'Shanghai') knows how to sustain an atmosphere of portent to match the devil-minded decrees of old men in robes. Soon, though, the film's welcome sense of humor is diminished and its sense of horror comes to fall on the hoary clichés of leaping cats and violin shrieks. It should come as little surprise if you've seen any of the commercials or just about any other exorcism film (though it might, so perhaps skipping to the next paragraph would be best) that Father Lucas grows weak and becomes possessed
The drama between the two comes down to psychological hand-holding, and saddled with a PG-13 rating, the proceedings grow no more disturbing than seeing Gastini cough up a couple of nails (from the cross!). We've already established that 'The Rite' is no 'The Exorcist,' but if it's stuck anywhere on the spectrum, it falls somewhere between either version of the ill-fated 'Exorcist' prequel from a few years back, shooting for the soulful decay of Paul Schrader's take while settling for the go-for-broke goofiness of Renny Harlin's version (just replace "hyenas" with "a red-eyed mule"). As it stands now, Håfström's film is just another cautionary tale for atheists and just another loud-jolt exercise for the Friday-night teen audience, content with the mere ritual of supernatural hokum and the illusion of dramatic depth.