Set in a Sartrean representation of present-day Italy, The Rite is a satirical look at exorcism and the individuals who perform them. With similarities to Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit and his belief that “Hell is other people,” Mikael Håfström’s (1408, Derailed) latest chronicles two clergymen — Michael Kovak (Colin O’ Donoghue) and his seasoned counterpart, Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins) — as they try to cleanse both a pregnant teenager and a physically scarred young boy from what the children claim has taken hold of them: Demons. Coincidentally, both men have doubts about their faith, being uncertain of whether their “patients” are being afflicted by otherworldly creatures or serious mental deficiencies, though personally, Kovak puts his trust in the latter. But in The Rite, even bible thumpers have been dabbed in sin; in example, Kovak only attended the seminary because it served as a free ride, and four long years away from his mortician father — sloth — whereas Lucas exemplifies another deadly sin — greed — when he haphazardly answers his cell phone during a seemingly important exorcism in order to settle his own affairs.
So it makes sense that the film opens with a quote from the late-Pope John Paul II. “The battle against the Devil, which is the principal task of Saint Michael the Archangel, is still being fought today, because the Devil is still alive and active in the world,” a scene-card reads; using Sartre’s philosophy, the reason behind this eternal struggle is clear: Hell (a.k.a. Lucifer) is not a spiritual realm, instead, the concept of damnation is present in our fellow man. This is what The Rite explores — sometimes through satirical humor (Lucas’ hammy albeit misplaced wisecracks) and other times via characterization (i.e., the entire cast). The central irony is that these two men, having their fair share of filth on their hands, are boasted as “Servants of God,” and are thus allowed to label others as being either holy or unholy, leading them to perform unorthodox rituals, which at times have unfortunate consequences — such as suicide.
And the formula works when Michael Petroni’s (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Queen of the Damned) screenplay doesn’t try to be something it isn’t — a quality horror. Unfortunately, although The Rite works as a character study, it’s not scary. Authentically matured set-pieces that were filmed both in Budapest and Rome are underutilized as Petroni, in his adaptation of Italian-author, Matt Baglio’s book The Making of a Modern Exorcist, can’t figure out what tone he wants to set; at several points the film spontaneously switches gears — dipping into dark humor then becoming a full-fledged psychological thriller afterwards diving straight in modern horror. This lack of consistency, plagued by a dwindling pace, negates any of the film’s atmospheric eeriness.
In addition, O ‘Donoghue, the fresh-faced Irishmen, fails as a lead, mumbling his lines throughout and remaining apathetic. However, Hopkins, a talent who hasn’t faltered yet, is still a joy on-screen. As Father Lucas, Hopkins is unpredictable and amusing. In this way, Hopkins steals the spotlight off the freshman actor, who shouldn’t have been cast in the first place.
Father Gary Thomas, whose experiences with demonic forces became the basis of Michael Kovak’s character, has said that the exorcisms shown in the film are “very accurate.” In some bizarre way, that seems like an appropriate response to The Rite, which admittedly isn’t quite as exploitative as many horror films. However, it also isn’t thrilling, thus leaving not much else to be said in that respect. And although Mikael Håfström does raise an interesting question (are there truly otherworldly demons or just human evils?), there is one thing that is certain: Two wrongs don’t make a right, but a dozen make up The Rite.