There is a moment early on in The Rite where Father Trevant (Hopkins) discharges a young girl from his care having just performed an exorcism on her. Trevant’s sceptical young trainee, Michael Kovak (O’Donoghue), seems surprised that the girl should be so casually dismissed only moments after a demon supposedly manifested within her. Trevant says to Kovak “What did you expect? Spinning heads and pea soup?”
It’s a response that neatly sums up the restraint exhibited throughout the first two thirds of this film but one that also rings hollow by the time of the film’s conclusion. Because The Rite is a pretty decent horror film that could have been very good indeed if only Director Mikael Håfström had managed to keep his foot on the brakes and avoid careering wildly down hill towards a rather overblown and predictable finale.
Set predominately in Rome, the film tells the story of a trainee Priest who is sent to the Italian capital to train to be an Exorcist. Unfortunately, he’s also an atheist who only joined the Priesthood in order to escape life at home. So when he is sent to observe and learn from Father Lucas Trevant, a veteran Exorcist, the stage is set for a clash of psychology versus religion that will be familiar to anyone who has seen other films of this type. Trevant introduces Kovak to Rosaria (Marta Gastini), a young, pregnant girl who is seemingly possessed by a demon, and both Priests have their own conflicting ideas about the best way to help her.
Of course, any horror film dealing with the subject of demonic possession is going to invite comparisons with The Exorcist. Especially so in this case, as it also features a relationship between two priests, the older believer and the young sceptic. In this regard The Rite stands up rather well, as the relationship between Trevant and Kovak is an interesting and absorbing one, particularly when we’re forced to identify with Kovak’s scepticism and begin to question whether Trevant is the real deal, a fraudster or perhaps even mentally ill himself. And as with the script, both of the leads are at their best in the early to middle parts of the film.
Anthony Hopkins is wonderful in those quieter moments where we see the old Priest’s own vulnerabilities and fears surface and he can make you jump out of your seat when he suddenly barks an accusation at someone or exhorts a demon to begone. Unfortunately, there is a sequence towards the end when he stops channelling the supernatural and instead starts channelling Hannibal Lecter. All of a sudden, he’s back up there on screen – the mocking tone, the cruel intelligence and that accent. It certainly doesn’t help a conclusion that by that point has already started to embrace a few exorcist movie cliches.
O’Donoghue is effective enough and does a pretty good job with a character who finds it easy to dismiss but difficult to believe. However, it’s hard to accept that his character would join the priesthood just to get away from his Dad and his undertaking business, because in their family ‘you either do one or the other’. His relationship with his father (a haunted looking Rutger Hauer) doesn’t provide any plausible reason for such a radical course of action on his part. They just seem to have grown apart a bit since the death of his mother. Hardly a reason for wasting four years of his life on something he has no intention of pursuing.
The film’s strengths are the exorcism scenes involving Rosaria and provide some of the best moments, particularly as Gastini gives a very effective performance as a frightened, damaged girl one minute and one who is possessed the next. These scenes work thanks to the strength of all three performances but also because there is very little in the way of special effects, making them seem like plausible occurrences in a world where trainee Exorcists go to class and hear lectures on identifying demons.
But it’s in the context of having earlier established such a thoughtfully sedate but nonetheless satisfying tone that the film’s last third is so disappointing. The final show down, if not quite spinning heads and pea soup, is laced with enough special effects, shaking walls and bizarre hallucinations, to ditch the sort of low key credibility that had been so effective up to that point. It’s a real shame because for a good part of its running time The Rite is a well acted and darkly atmospheric film that in the end, promises more than it delivers.
It’s no The Exorcist but then few films can reach those heights. Much like The Last Exorcism, The Rite can’t quite deliver on its initial promise, although it doesn’t blow it’s ending as spectacularly as Daniel Stamm’s film. However, when it works, it provides some tense drama, decent performances and several scares. Even if one of them is provided by a cat.