En español | The folks who made The Rite — the gritty story of a skeptical young seminarian and his tutelage under a wizened exorcist in Italy — know very well we’ve seen The Exorcist. In fact, after the new film’s first exorcism, a rather tepid encounter with a demon in the body of a pregnant girl, the aged priest (Anthony Hopkins) turns to his unimpressed charge and asks, “What did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?”
He’s asking us, of course, as well. And for most of the way, The Rite manages to stay well this side of Linda Blair-ville, instead drawing us in with the darkly quirky qualities of old Father Trevant, a battle-weary spiritual warrior whose life in the trenches has, it turns out, left him with a few demons of his own. There’s always at least one good reason to see an Anthony Hopkins film and that is, of course, Anthony Hopkins. Endlessly resourceful — with the unexpected reading of a line, the subtle facial twitch that conveys a character’s deepest secrets — Hopkins is among our top handful of screen actors. The Rite’s print ads, showing the star’s face lit from below, his eyes a dead pool of evil, suggest Hopkins’s most notorious screen creation, Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs. The ad ploy is a disservice to Hopkins’s performance here, a finely calibrated portrait of a good man who has spent his life too close to the fires of Hell.
Colin O’Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, a proud unbeliever who cynically attends seminary solely for the free education. Too late he learns from the priest in charge (Toby Jones) that if he doesn’t take his final vows the school can hit him up for four years of tuition. The priest offers to let him off the hook — if he’ll first put in a few months at the Vatican, taking a course in exorcism. (He observes that Michael, who grew up the son of a mortician, would be perfect because “You’re not squeamish.”)
Director Mikael Håfström does a nice job of lowering our pyrotechnic expectations — early on, the symptoms of possession are limited to the considerable skills of the actors, and we’re sympathetic to Michael’s assertion that what we’ve really got here are some cases of extreme mental illness. Even when a girl starts spitting up great big iron nails, the seminarian’s suggestion that she may have swallowed them earlier seems plausible. O’Donoghue and Hopkins strike an appealing balance — the younger man is always ready with a rational (if increasingly desperate) explanation of what’s going on; the veteran is serenely confident of the very real supernatural powers at work.
The young priest’s path to faith is carefully plotted by screenwriter Michael Petroni — his traumatic experiences at the old exorcist’s side first lead him to grudgingly acknowledge the reality of evil, and so he must also concede the existence of good. And as he witnesses evil pouring from an entity that manifests itself as a personality, then he realizes that good must proceed from a being as well. In the end (and not a moment too soon), it’s that blossoming faith that sends a really, really nasty demon off on its miserable way.
Toward the end, The Rite ventures perilously close to high camp. (The appearance of a satanic mule with fiery red eyes is a particularly bad choice.) As the demons mount their final battle against the two men, there’s a nagging fear that the filmmakers are about to break their implicit promise about no spinning heads or pea soup. They don’t: While there’s some scary use of computer imaging, it’s good old film and sound editing that deliver the finale’s shocks — along with yet another devilishly sly performance by Anthony Hopkins.