The Rite is a decent passage from a stage actor to a screen presence

The Rite – 2011

Directed by Mikael Håfström

Starring Colin O’Donoghue, Anthony Hopkins, Marta Gastini, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Toby Jones, Rutger Hauer, Alice Braga, Ciarán Hinds

Written by Matt Baglio, Michael Petroni

In the midst of an exorcism of a pregnant 16-year-old Italian girl, Father Lucas, plainly portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, receives a cell phone call.  Quickly he asks his protegé, Michael, to assist as he answers it.  Father Lucas concludes the call, then resumes operations.  It’s not like the demon has anything better to do, I guess.

Michael Kovac (a very stoic O’Donoghue) the son of a mortician who was so dedicated to his job, he had his son help in the preparation of his own dead mother.  As a result, Michael’s innocence is replaced by a growing skepticism and resolve to put up with the nonsense he is seeing.  His mother, you see, had faith in him.  His father, however, thought the mark of any true mortician would be the ability to do the job even when things get rough.

Taking that ability is put to good use when he purposely goes through seminary school, not to become a priest, but for the education.  Once that education is attained, he submits a resignation of sorts.  That resignation is ignored by the attending Father Matthew (Jones), who witnesses Michael’s resolve during a traumatic event.  Consequently, Michael’s bluff is called while he is encouraged to go to Rome to take a class on exorcism.  Michael is left without much in the way of options.  At least, as Father Matthew puts it, there will be a free trip to Rome.

There he meets up with a specialist in the field, Father Lucas, who immediately senses Michael’s skepticism:

Now once more, with feeling.

“Father Lucas: What is it that you believe?
Michael: That’s not the devil.
Father Lucas: Does a thief or a burglar turn on the lights while he’s robbing your house? No. He prefers you to believe that he’s not there… like the devil!
Michael: Gets complicated when no proof of the devil is somehow proof of the devil.

Father Lucas: You know, the interesting thing about sceptics, is that we’re always looking for proof… the question is, what on earth would we ever do if we found it?”

Also while in Rome, he meets up with a reporter, Angelina Vargas, who is earnestly played by Alice Braga.  Braga was excellent in Predators, and here, she does a fair job for what is essentially a hand-holding role.  It shows how seriously the makers took this film when no obvious overtures, or worse, liaisons are made between Michael and Angelina.

The real work in the film is in the back and forth between Michael and Father Lucas.  At first, I wondered if this was going to be another of the unfortunate post -Lecter roles for Hopkins, which has him alternating between bemused spectator and semi-ferocious old dude.  Only a few of his many films have stood out in his career since he won his Oscar, Remains of the Day, The Edge, Amistad and The World’s Fastest Indian.  Here he presents himself in a combination of the spectator and the ferocious old dude, and he does a good job of it.  This performance won’t win him many rewards, but there are not many out there who could pull it off like he can, either.

“You can only defeat him once you believe.”

The real find in this film is Irish actor O’Donoghue.  You can tell a lot about an actor by what they can do onscreen while not speaking.  O’Donoghue, who has a considerable amount of stage acting credentials for one who is on the edge of 30, has a considerable presence in the film.  He is a book open to be written in, but with many dark chapters already.  His non-belief is that of the watcher.  His conversion in this story is the conversion is ours.  O’Donoghue does a good job pulling it off, for the material.  Hopkins, as his counter, portrays a deep man with a troubled soul.  The thing about the priesthood, is that the simpler they are portrayed, the better for most.  Those who have been tangled with darkness for even a short while allows the darkness to creep in to our own belief.

For the demons in The Rite, the path is a tricky one.  He only succeeds if he can make you doubt God.  Most doubters, including Michael Kovac, also doubt the devil’s existence.  Once the doubt is removed for the latter…well, you know.

Håfström directed a pretty good Stephen King adaptation called 1408 a few years back.  That story had a similar protagonist with a tragic past who examined haunted places as a skeptic.  His conversion was a little more “you had to be there,” than this one.  In this way Håfström is improving.  His style is straightforward.  His camera does not linger too long in the beauty of Rome.  It could, but that would distract from the story.  Unfortunately, neither does it add much to it.  The challenge here, of course, is coming up with new imagery that can at once stay consistent to, but not parody The Exorcist.  In this respect, I don’t know well it succeeds.  The first 2/3 of the film could be any movie about the subject for the last 20 years.  It’s only once he drops the conventions and lets the actors act, do we start to move forward with the characters.  The result is a nice film, but that’s about it.  What one really departs The Rite with is an appreciation for the skill of Colin O’Donoghue, and a wish to see what he does next.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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