Diagnosed with a dearth of faith, aspiring priest Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), who only joined the seminary to wriggle out of working at his old man’s funeral home anyway, gets sent to exorcist school at the Vatican, where he meets a kooky old Welshman (Anthony Hopkins) who teaches him the ropes. Their first client’s a pregnant teen who becomes a contortionist and barfs up bloody spikes whenever the Devil’s steering the bus. But what really rattles Michael’s sturdy skepticism is the way Satan seems to know his secrets, and speaks them out loud through the mouths of the possessed, in front of everybody, and in English, no less. Because The Rite is fundamentally about the acquisition of faith, as a weapon against diabolical forces attempting to control the flesh, as a way of focusing your mind and settling on a career. This is the story of a young fellow finding his vocation, and thus doubles as a recruitment video for the Catholic Church. Come, we’re told, and fetching Italian journalists will dig you, even if you can’t make out with them. More importantly, you’ll get to put demons in the sleeper-hold on a regular basis.
I certainly appreciate how The Rite, helmed by 1408 director Mikael Håfström, “inspired by” true events and “suggested by” a book by Matt Braglio, honours its own convictions enough to hold off on dopey spectacle and manifest its evil in relatively subtler forms—if Satan made everybody levitate and do the head-spin there wouldn’t be any reason to doubt his existence. Perhaps the central problem with the film is that its conflicts are so abstract and internal that the final showdown feels artificially protracted and actually pretty dull, with not especially riveting newcomer O’Donoghue driving the devil out of Hopkins, who in going from mentor to victim gets to transition from affecting an amusingly businesslike air to supplying a torrent of Hannibal Lecter-like taunts. At least he’s having fun.
There’s also something about the way The Rite appeals to the ostensible latent Catholic in all of us that feels annoyingly simplistic, that feeds into a childish desire for sweeping solutions to life’s most complex problems and absolutions from responsibility for our inner demons. Michael does indeed initially question church dogma and defer to psychology in his attempts to explain away freaky phenomena, but once he rises to the occasion and casts Satan out of a poor soul the implication is that he’s learned a glorious truth, one tantamount to a free lunch: by simply speaking some magic words, The Rite assures us, and doing so like you really mean it, we can each of us be cured of what agonizes us.