By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
The Rite is an exorcism flick "inspired by true events," which in this case means once upon a time there was a priest.
The rest is regurgitated rhetoric about the devil, dotted with tamer versions of bone-snapping contortions and obscene taunts common to the genre since The Exorcist in 1973. Got to keep that PG-13 rating for optimal ticket sales, you know.
"What did you expect?" the Father Merrin of this piece (Anthony Hopkins) gravely intones. "Spinning heads and pea soup?"
Well, that might be more entertaining than this movie.
To its advantage, The Rite is based on a book on how to train your exorcist, and a Vatican suggestion that each diocese include a demon buster on staff. Of course those warriors against the darkness should firmly believe in what they're doing, which is where a fictional seminary student with a minor in psychology and spiritual doubt comes in.
He is the appropriately photogenic Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue), who had a choice of being a priest or a mortician like his father (Rutger Hauer). It's a Kovak family tradition, so you figure most of the clan went into embalming or else there wouldn't be much of a family, with the whole celibacy thing. Flashbacks to Michael's mother on the slab getting a postmortem manicure from Dad apparently tipped the scales.
No sooner has Michael finished his education than he turns in a letter of resignation from the priesthood. Ah, but he'll have to refund his $100,000 scholarship unless he keeps the collar, so service to the Lord becomes a form of extortion. Michael is shipped to Italy and the tutelage of Father Lucas (Hopkins), an old hand at exorcisms who'll pass along the correct procedures of holy water sprinkling.
Much of what's wrong with The Rite is found in an extended debate between Michael and Father Lucas about whether aberrant behavior is a psychological or satanic issue. When one makes a solid point, something is bound to happen soon to contradict it. The movie shouldn't be so wishy-washy; either it's the devil and all hell should break loose, or it's mental instability and centuries of belief should be shaken. The Rite wants it both ways and ends up establishing neither.
Hopkins does his best Hannibal Lecter in a clerical collar, silky and eventually sinister when a demon moves into his body. Father Lucas is a strange bird, interrupting the exorcism of a young woman (Marta Gastini) to take a cell phone call, and slipping a frog into her pillow to extract it as a kind of spiritual placebo. Those quirks make Father Lucas impossible to take seriously while droning Vatican talking points.
The Rite gets its scares from howling cats leaping from nowhere and doors slamming when no one expects it. Even Gastini's tongue-flapping gibberish and double-jointed poses are laughable cliches rather than the shocks intended. Yes, there is a hell, and this movie is showing at its local multiplex.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.