Think of Hollywood movies about devils and exorcisms and “The Exorcist” likely springs to mind first. Shocking audiences in 1973, that film went on to win a Best Picture Oscar and become a worldwide smash hit that continues to rattle viewers to this day.
Legend has it that “The Exorcist” filmmakers also suffered from an on-set curse that caused numerous accidents and even a death during the filming process.
This weekend, a new film called “The Rite” hits theaters with its own dark tale of a young priest-in-training named Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue in his film debut), whose personal crisis of faith is tested by a creepy veteran exorcist named Father Lucas (played to chilly perfection by the modern master of cinematic evil, Anthony Hopkins).
While “The Rite” offers plenty of jaw-dropping moments, the key difference between it and “The Exorcist” is the fact that it’s rooted in a nonfiction book on the subject called “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist,” by journalist Matt Baglio. As a result of the presence of Baglio and the book’s subject, an American exorcist named Father Gary Thomas, the film relies less on gallons of pea soup and grotesque effects and more on a subtle and reflective — yet still thrilling — approach to its subject.
The film follows Kovak — based on Thomas — as he decides to enter a seminary after being given an ultimatum by his widowed father (Rutger Hauer) to enter either the family mortuary business or become a priest. After finishing his four years of pre-vow studies, Kovak tries to resign from the seminary and get off the hook with a free education but no commitment to the priesthood.
But following a bizarre, split-second accident, after which he fulfills an injured cyclist’s dying wish for absolution of her sins, Kovak is given an ultimatum by the head of the seminary: either confront his doubts by going for exorcist training at the Vatican or risk having the church reclassify his $100,000 education from a scholarship to a student loan.
Soon thereafter, Kovak heads for Rome, where he must team up with Father Lucas as punishment for his doubts about the devil during his other teachers’ lectures.
Together, Kovak and Father Lucas form an intriguing team that expertly mixes dark wit, powerful emotions and nail-biting suspense to make this exploration of faith and doubt richly entertaining. Writer Michael Petroni and director Mikael Hafstrom (“1408”) treat their subject with appropriate gravity without becoming heavy-handed and pull out Hopkins’ best performance since “Hannibal” a decade ago.
But the story rests on O’Donoghue’s richly varied performance, in which he expertly serves as a surrogate for viewers’ doubts while effectively taking them along on his at-times terrifying quest for the truth.
In providing viewers with an intelligent yet fun exploration of life, death and the existence of evil, “The Rite” appears set for a long run at your local multiplex.