8:21pm

Thu January 27, 2011
Movie Reviews

An Exorcism Tale With Too Little Of The Rite Stuff

An establishing shot at the beginning of Mikael Hafstrom's The Rite announces, a little too neatly, what's about to unfold over the next 90-plus minutes: "Redemption Theater," reads the cinema marquee in the town where Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue) wants desperately to escape the life intended for him by his father (Rutger Hauer).

Michael, you see, is expected to take over the family business — a drab small-town mortuary. But he makes a break from Dad's plan with an assist from Mother Church; despite a gnawing lack of faith, he figures Catholic seminary is far preferable to a lifetime spent giving manicures to the dead.

Those two words on the marquee bluntly telegraph his journey: This skeptic is due for a transformation. And because this is a movie about exorcism, he's not just going to find his faith; he's set to become the demon-fighting sword of God.

Screenwriter Michael Petroni — adapting journalist Matt Baglio's nonfiction book about real-life exorcist Gary Thomas — sets Kovak up as the most unlikely of divine weapons. He flunks his theology classes, attempts to resign from the seminary on the verge of priesthood, and only heads to the special exorcism academy in Rome under threat of having to pay for his education should he drop out. Once there, we get the sense that he's not very well suited to celibacy, either, at least from the way he flirts with a young Italian reporter (Alice Braga) working on a story about the school.

After displaying open defiance of church dogma in class, he's sent to apprentice with an unorthodox career exorcist, one Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins). But when presented with observable evidence of possession, he still refuses to believe.

Hopkins' appearance is initially a welcome sign of life in a film that, until his arrival, sorely lacks any engaging features. Hafstrom, who was quick to provide genuinely creepy thrills in his 2007 haunted-hotel feature, 1408, seems content to let the first act of The Rite unfold with nothing more than halfhearted gloom and plodding exposition. Father Lucas may be a walking cliche — the irreverent mentor prone to corny jokes ("Speak of the devil!" he quips when the first exorcism candidate knocks at the door) — but at least he cuts through the quotidian storytelling with a little quirk.

There's a trace of camp in the role that, had Petroni and Hafstrom let it play out, might have at least lent the film some minor guilty-pleasure status. It's always fun watching an actor who's far too good for the material seize the bit and ham it up; tends to break up the dull self-seriousness.

But writer and director saddle Lucas with his own brooding existential crises before finally revealing the real motive for the casting decision: to let Hopkins chew the scenery as his demons — personal and literal — turn him into an unholy blend of Hannibal Lecter and The Exorcist's Regan MacNeil.

Hafstrom's direction seems stuck in neutral throughout, though. He lets Hopkins run roughshod over nearly every scene he's in, but fails to provoke the largely affectless O'Donoghue into any display of emotion at all. And he shoots Rome in sense-dulling grays and browns, presumably hoping to induce a vague dread and heighten the impact of the precious few gotcha-style scares. (A handful of his ludicrous images fall well short of their intended menace.)

When Michael finally gets around to casting out a few demons, the bombastic climax feels like just a silly, loud, overlong warmup for a giant relief of a credit crawl. The film's sudden, too-tidy conclusion offers Michael some of that promised redemption. Hafstrom, on the other hand, has some serious work ahead of him if he wants any kind of absolution after this wreck. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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