It might be the Catholic in her, but my mother has always had an intense fear of exorcism movies; a fear so deep that she won't even see them. I remember, as a kid, her telling me that The Exorcist was the scariest movie ever made. Years later, she told me she'd never seen it, but that it didn't change her opinion. Anything with spinning heads and pea soup was out, as far as she was concerned. So I never saw an exorcism movie either, and it might have been my inner Catholic that saved me from spending all my hard earned money on demonic possession, curse words spat at priests, and token Latin incantations. The Rite has all of that, but it is imbued with quietness untypical of a modern horror film. I only counted one cat-related jump scare, and the film is largely dependent on Anthony Hopkins' ability to be menacing without shouting anybody down.
Anthony Hopkins: Fr. Lucas Trevant
Chris O'Donoghue: Fr. Michael Kovak
Alice Braga: Angeline
Marta Gastini: Rosaria
Yeah, Well, That's Just Your Opinion, Man
The Rite's long preamble concerns Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue), the son of a mortician who dreads following his father's footsteps and wants very badly to get himself a college education. His father probably wouldn't pay, so he decides to go to the seminary, study for four years, get his degree and drop out. In a very after-school special-ish way, Michael aces all his finals but one: Theology. This earns him a talking to from his mentor, who tells him that, were he to leave, he'd owe $100,000 in student loans. He could, on the other hand, travel to Rome for free and take up exorcism. Yes, he's being blackmailed by the Catholic church, but Michael's a skeptic, and he's willing to face down the Devil if it means loan forgiveness.
His plot arc from there is all very connect-the-dots: He goes to Rome, occupies some awesome buildings, takes classes, doubts his faith, meets an attractive girl, and meets his mentor. His mentor is Fr. Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), an exorcist who is very successful and, according to the buzz, very unorthodox. So he goes to Trevant's house and watches an exorcism be performed on a pregnant teenager. She writhes and moans and curses Trevant in a foreign tongue, but Michael is unconvinced. He suggests a psychiatrist, even when the girl coughs up nails. Sure, she could have swallowed them as Michael suggests, but they’re not exactly the swallowing kind. A whole lot of magic is going to need to happen for him to be convinced.
The thing about The Rite is that it can’t decide if it wants to scare its audience or make it think. The film tries to have it both ways and fails to do much of anything in either department. This means that demonic possession is transmitted by a disease, is marked by the appearance of bad CGI, and takes several leaps of faith that a serious movie would have never thought twice about. Much of the deep thinking is done by Kovacs, and his deep thought amounts to the old maxim that there must be some logical explanation behind the illogical stuff he’s been party to. Ho-hum.
The girl is Angeline (Alice Braga), who isn’t given a last name because she’s not really a love interest for our young priest. She’s a journalist who wants to report on what Travant does during his exorcists and, based on the fact that the Holy See dug The Rite, you can probably guess what she reported. Like plenty of surname-less women in horror movies, Angeline is little more than an expository device, a sounding wall that Fr. Kovak can bounce questions off of, a doubting Thomas ripe for the conversion. It’ll be nice when, sometime in the distant future, a movie like this will be able to support three characters, full names and all.
Kovak’s weightlessness and Angeline’s aimlessness mean that much of The Rite’s weight rests with Anthony Hopkins, who is up to the task as a priest who, even as an experienced exorcist, experiences some doubts about his faith. That, ultimately, is what The Rite is trying to do: examine the issue of man’s belief in a supreme being. It’s a fine mission, only it seems to be getting radioed in from some distant battlefield, over a bad receiver. Without the drive to scare or enlighten its audience, The Rite becomes a tepid religious drama; a spiritual quest undertaken by a blank slate who, given the film's lack of gravity, would untether himself from the plot and float into the ether were it not for Hopkins' presence, a solid foundation for a house of cards.