The question this exorcism potboiler really raises isn’t what’s possessing the supposed victims in it, but what possessed a great actor like Anthony Hopkins to accept a role in such schlock. In “The Rite” the Oscar-winner, who’s previously graced rubbish like “The Wolfman,” plays what’s essentially the Max von Sydow role as Father Lucas Trevant, a Rome-based exorcist who becomes a sort of mentor to Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) an American seminarian sent to the Vatican to take an exorcist-training course being offered by Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds).
Kovak, the son of a funeral home owner (Rutger Hauer) who entered the seminary to escape the family business, is uncertain of his own faith, and was planning to leave the seminary until persuaded by his teacher (Toby Jones) to take Xavier’s course. Xavier, in turn, directs the skeptical youth to Trevant, a garrulous, hyperactive fellow who treating an intensely troubled pregnant girl (Marta Gastini) and a troubled young boy (Andrea Calligari). But even their cases don’t persuade Michael that their problems aren’t psychological rather than demonic.
That changes when Kovak’s father falls ill, Father Trevant himself becomes a victim of devilish attack, and Michael must accept God in order to defeat the demon possessing the older man. Also involved in the his turn to his obvious destiny is a reporter (Alice Braga) researching the exorcism process, who serves briefly as a potential romantic interest for Michael.
One can see why Hopkins might have been attracted by the Trevant role. It offers the actor the opportunity to indulge in all his mannerisms to the highest degree, especially since director Mikael Hafstrom seems unwilling or unable to impose any sort of control over him. His performance is all tics and gesticulation, benignly amusing at first but growing increasingly menacing as the story proceeds; and in the last reels he goes into overdrive, his face contorted with makeup as he sneers and shouts out threats and cruel jokes before being exorcised. It’s a deeply corrupt, hammy turn from an actor once capable of subtle inflection and shifts of mood but who now seems interested in playing constantly to the rafters—a character with a capital C, the male equivalent of Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford. Not a pretty thing to see.
Still, Hopkins’ flamboyance might have been good for a few laughs if the movie weren’t such a dull, lugubrious affair, with a screenplay (by Michael Patroni, based on a book by Matt Baglio) that grows more ridiculous by the minute (especially when hazy flashbacks and hallucinations intervene) and cinematography (by Ben Davis) so dark and murky—and so loaded with oppressive close-ups—that it’s likely to cause eyestrain.
The rest of the cast is no help. O’Donoghue has zero charisma, and his stilted, clumsy turn leaves no impression. Braga, meanwhile, adopts what appears to be a permanent smirk as the basis of her performance, while Hauer appears totally bored (an understandable tack to take). Hinds adds a touch of authority to the proceedings, and Gastini throws herself into the role of possessed victim as completely as Hopkins does. But it’s all in the service of a cause doomed by a screenplay without either reason, poetry or chills.
“The Rite” doesn’t even have the imagination of the “The Last Exorcism,” which wasn’t much good but at least tried something different. Were it not for its starry cast, it would be perfect direct-to-DVD fodder, or a Saturday Night SyFy channel premiere. It really is that bad.