Review by Tim Carson
THE WORDS “based on a true story” at the start of any film can strike fear and dread into the heart of any film goer. It’s true they can give you great films like 127 Hours or The King’s Speech but even then you always wonder how much is really true and how much is “fictionalised”.
The words “inspired by a true story” are even worse as they leave even more room for “dramatisation”. With The Rite, for example, did the film-makers hear the story of a novice priest who went to Rome to become an exorcist or did they hear a story about a mule whose eyes went red on a dusty day and they were then inspired to make a film about that mule being possessed by the devil?
The phrase immediately makes you question the truth of what you see, which in many ways is appropriate for a film that is about faith and belief. (And yes the red-eyed mule is actually in the film – whether you believe in the dust or the devil is up to you.)
Scepticism is at the heart of the film as novice priest Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), who joins the priesthood to escape life with his undertaker father, lacks the belief to continue. Just as he’s about to quit he gets sent to Rome to study exorcism at the Vatican and then with unorthodox exorcist Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins).
Michael’s scepticism means he’s convinced that possession is more a psychological problem that a demonic one and Father Lucas’ treatment of a pregnant 16-year-old does little to convince him otherwise.
It’s an intriguing perspective and at first the director Mikael Hafstrom (1408) plays with it pretty well building up the atmosphere and letting the audience share Michael’s belief – or lack of it. However, once the film begins to explore Father Lucas’ exorcisms things start to go wrong and rather than becoming scary and unsettling it becomes predictable and silly.
Seeing the two priests climb the stairs to perform the exorcism on the teenage girl has echoes of The Exorcist , in fact the whole film is littered with conventions of other films about exorcism. While it’s clearly deliberate The Rite does little to add to them or expand upon them, which is the waste of a good idea and a decent cast.
Newcomer Colin O’Donoghue is likable as the sceptical Michael and Alice Braga as the investigative journalist provides a decent female presence in what could otherwise have been a very male dominated film. However, it’s Anthony Hopkins who saves the film from being truly terrible. He somehow manages to hold the whole thing together with a performance that balances eccentricity with warmth and stoicism. Even his dark side doesn’t seem as ridiculous as it could be.
Still it’s not enough to turn the film into a must-see night out at the movies. While there are some striking moments and some interesting ideas in The Rite it descends too often into cliché. It could have been a dark psychological thriller like Black Swan or an out and out scare-fest like The Exorcist but it’s neither and that’s why it’s a disappointment.
Running time: 114mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: June 20, 2011