In many ways The Rite has plenty of thematic parallels with the recent exorcism film The Last Exorcism, although the latter one was filmed in found footage mockumentary style, while this one boasted quite a departure for director Mikael Hafstrom, who's probably better known for his Shanghai and 1408. To tackle a horror film on this subgenre would be interesting but unfortunately this attempt was marred by pacing which was absolutely off the mark, with nothing really squemish or frightening, that those looking toward a good scary outing may emerge disappointed.
If you'd know by now, you'd approach any films that's based on or inspired by true events with that requisite grain of salt, since dramatization takes a huge chunk off realism, especially if it comes from Hollywood. But if this story was really true, especially its pivotal event in the last act, then it goes to show that man being man is always vulnerable to manipulation, and in a more religious context, susceptible to sinning. Examples are aplenty in the real world about false prophets and those who succumb to worldly temptations, and there will be some who enter religion for all the wrong, personal and selfish reasons.
Just like Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue), who entered the clergy just to escape from his mortician father (Rutger Hauer) and their family undertaking business, just to obtain a scholarship, and any scholarship at that. It actually kills many birds with one stone, since Michael loathes his dad and can be away for an extended period of time on study, he still keeps in line with one of two occupations of his lineage, and gets a qualification to boot. Simply put, Michael isn't in it for long, wanting to exploit an opportunity, much to the detriment of mentor Father Matthew (Toby Jones), who decides to persuade him by sending him to Rome under the tutelage of Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds), who offered him what would be the in-thing, and a qualification severely lacking in the Church - that of being an exorcist.
But wait, for a man without faith to tangle with the devil and his minions, surely there's no better way to commit career suicide (and not to mention the losing of one's soul to eternal damnation)? Enter Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas Trevant, an experienced exorcist who takes Michael under his wing in the most unorthodox of circumstances, introductions and mentorship, where he throws Michael right into the deep end of the pool, only for Michael to repeatedly throw cold water at what he's witnessing. Like the pairing between Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in the X-Files, one's a believer, while the other's quite the skeptic, and putting them both together offers perspectives from both sides, with one adamant in trying to convince the other of their collective faith, and the other rejecting blind faith and preferring to stick to a scientific counterpoint.
It's the classic tussle of trying to prove the existence of something to someone who disbelieves, though you cannot avoid the fact that for a hero to exist, there must be a villain to begin with, that there's no good without evil. For Michael who doesn't believe in god, surely he doesn't believe in the devil, and thus shows no fear when being confronted - an ideal trait now lacking one key component in faith. Like The Last Exorcism, the character development for its protagonist is obvious, with Michael who thinks the victims are mentally sick from perpetual abuse and requires scientific medical help than from someone who repeatedly chants and sprinkles holy water. I had a little remote thought that things could have been staged in an elaborate manner to push someone over the edge to total submission and conversion, but hey, it's a thought that I felt could spice things up a little for an after film discussion.
Mikael Hafstrom crafted an atmospheric piece full of wonderful cinematography to bring out a general creepiness throughout the entire film, only for his pacing to let it all down. I've never been involved in a real exorcism and don't intend to, but I suppose what's being shown here could be pretty much like what's in real life, basically with nothing much happening unlike what's being portrayed in the movies with turning heads, spewing of bile, and various other physical gymnastics. There's almost zilch on that so don't come expecting brilliant special effects to make someone fly through the air, or do impossibly inhuman stunts.
Colin O'Donoghue's pretty lightweight as the main lead of Michael Kovak although I appreciate his backstory which sure did take its time to unravel, and it's quite believable how one would become who he is from something traumatic, although his redemption came quite as a matter of plot convenience. The real scene stealer here is undoubtedly Sir Anthony Hopkins, whose verbal tussles, and there were plenty, with the devil was velvety and smooth, like butter spread on hot toast. Yes the exorcisms you see here are nothing more than one involving a war of the words for the most parts, and Hopkins' delivery makes this worthwhile, able to send chills down your spine especially in the final act. No amount of special effects or computer trickery employed by similar movies can outdo what Hopkins does with his virtuoso performance.
Boasting the likes of others such as Alice Braga, Toby Jones and Rutger Hauer for that matter in various bit roles, The Rite is only tolerable because of Hopkins' presence, without which this would be a stretch and a yawnfest that had overstayed its welcome. You can read up the actual events that inspired this story here