Director: Mikael Håfström
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Colin O'Donoghue, Alice Braga, Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones
Ever since Max von Sydow's shadowy image entered film legend in The Exorcist, the idea of innocent people inhabited by dark forces has been a popular formula for many a studio. The latest in a long line of such films is The Rite, which uses that perennially popular marketing tool, the claim that the film was "based on true events". It also boasts a horror institution in Dr Hannibal Lecter himself, Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Based on the book The Making of a Modern Exorcism, which writer Matt Baglio researched by witnessing more than 20 exorcisms, the film also incorporates a rumoured 2007 initiative (the existence of which has been denied by the Vatican) to install an exorcist in every diocese. We meet Michael Kovak (O'Donoghue), a trainee priest driven by his mortician father (Hauer) to enter seminary school. At the end of his four-year course, on the verge of completion, Michael writes a letter of resignation to his superior, Father Matthew (Jones). Seeing potential in Michael, Father Matthew asks him to attend a class on exorcism in Rome. It is there Michael meets Father Lucas (Hopkins), an eccentric but renowned exorcist, whom he accompanies to the ongoing exorcism of a possessed Italian girl. At first attributing her behaviour to psychological disorders, Michael soon witnesses behaviour that makes him question everything he believes.
For something so squarely marketed as a horror, the film is not particularly horrific. Just as he did with his 2007 Stephen King adaptation, 1408, the director Mikael Håfström creates an atmosphere that is eerie without being especially frightening.
The film is thoughtful and, to audiences used to the faster-paced gore of modern horror possibly dull, but if you can stay with the story and forgive its slow unfolding, there is a lot about it to like. Among the old-world architecture of Rome, the film doesn't rely on complicated computer-generated effects but instead uses murky lighting and eerie camera angles to convey just enough menace to leave you uneasy. There is even some philosophical discussion between the leads; Michael's scientific mind clashes with Father Lucas's first-hand experience on more than one occasion, making for some of the better scenes. The film is largely focused on the two main characters, and a sub plot involving Michael befriending a beautiful Italian journalist (played by Braga) feels illogical from a storytelling point of view and a hindrance to the main focus of Michael's battle with his own conscience.
Hopkins is no stranger to the type of scene-chewing performance that this type of role would seem to invite. Recently the actor has been accused of living off of his own reputation, exhibit A being last year's problematic remake of The Wolfman. However, here he is unusually understated, preferring a wry, enigmatic smile and a pithy philosophical line to grandstanding speeches. It's far from his greatest performance, particularly as he does begin to veer towards the melodramatic later in the film, but overall he is the reliable pro a story such as this needs.
Rising to the challenge of acting opposite such a big name is O'Donoghue, a young Irish actor in his first screen role. At vital moments the role seems a little too big for him, but playing Michael with a cool exterior works well on the whole, and he provides the anchor for the story which allows Hopkins to have fun with his performance. Hauer appears mostly in flashback, but adds to the creepiness as Michael's domineering father, and indeed character actors such as Jones flesh out supporting roles.
The Rite sits happily on the boundary between psychological horror and cheap scare-fest, not fully embracing either, and it is this happy medium that makes Håfström's film interesting. Playing like a chilling short story (as opposed to an overblown Saw-like monstrosity), an intriguing central relationship between the leads makes up for what it lacks in pace or impact. It won't make you ask yourself any big questions, but as a neat thriller, it does its job well.