Early in “The Rite,” veteran exorcist Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins) slyly taunts a young novice while conducting a demonic dispossession: “What did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?” Ticketbuyers avidly expecting those and other borrowings from William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” still the gold standard for this type of supernatural shocker, may be disappointed. But others could be pleasantly surprised by the relative restraint of helmer Mikael Hafstrom’s moodily atmospheric thriller. While marred by cheap tricks and borderline camp, pic comes off as a largely low-key, intelligent effort with midrange commercial potential.
Inspired by the research of Matt Baglio — a Rome-based journalist who wrote his nonfiction tome “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist” while scripter Michael Petroni concurrently worked on a fictionalized scenario — the film might best be described as the contemporary theological version of a WWII-era basic training drama.
In 2007, the Vatican announced plans to re-instruct the clergy on the rite of exorcism, in the hope of installing an exorcist in every diocese worldwide. (Call it the “No Demon Left Behind” program.) Using this real-life initiative as a jumping-off point, “Rite” charts the education of Chicago-born Michael Kovak (newcomer Colin O’Donoghue), a recent seminary graduate who’s shipped off to Rome for advanced training as a front-line soldier in the war against Satan.
Kovak is a draftee, not a volunteer. As the aud learns during expository scenes, he entered seminary school in the first place because he couldn’t afford a traditional college education — and because he wanted to escape his likely future as operator of the family business, a funeral home run by his taciturn father (Rutger Hauer). He’s assigned to Rome only because a superior hopes to convince the young man to embrace his true calling.
At first, however, Kovak is too much of an aggressively rational skeptic to unquestioningly accept what he’s taught by his Vatican mentor (Ciaran Hinds) about demonic possessions by Lucifer and his minions. And he remains unconvinced even after he begins private lessons with Father Lucas, a wizened eccentric with hundreds of exorcisms to his credit.
Kovak insists that supposedly “possessed” individuals more likely are suffering from psychological traumas. But his certainty is shaken a bit as he and Father Lucas treat a young pregnant woman (affectingly played by Marta Gastini) who really does appear to be occupied by Beelzebub.
“The Rite” takes an unhurried approach to its storytelling — Father Lucas doesn’t appear until 25 minutes in to the pic — and downplays the use of flashy special effects, even during some intense high-decibel sequences, while sustaining a mood of steadily mounting dread.
Pic comes perilously close to laugh-out-loud silliness when it renders an evil spirit as a vaguely sinister donkey, and relies too heavily on draggy flashbacks in its final third. Despite some occasional excesses and missteps, however, Hafstrom never allows things to get irreversibly out of hand. The sequences depicting exorcisms are dramatically potent, for reasons having less to do with camera trickery than with persuasive performances.
Hopkins underplays effectively, neatly balancing curmudgeonly wit with pained resilience. O’Donoghue, an Irish-born stage actor making his feature debut, convincingly handles an American accent while tracing Kovak’s evolution from doubter to believer. Alice Braga conveys nimble intelligence as a reporter covering the Vatican training program. In keeping with the pic’s overall seriousness of purpose, Hafstrom avoids using her character as a source of temptation for the handsome exorcist trainee.
Lenser Ben Davis gives “The Rite” a chilly, clammy look that aptly enhances the impression that, at any moment, Kovak is going to learn another harsh lesson about dealing with the devil. Other tech values are similarly first-rate.