Too often, movie-makers can't tell the difference between right and wrong. Like The Rite -- which is way wrong.
OK, it's not as much of a formula stinker as Season of the Witch. But really -- there's so much real evil in the world that it's hard to get excited (or scared) by the Devil and his minions. (Yes, true believers, I know -- the Devil is the cause of that evil.)
I'm not a big believer in the paranormal, the occult or the supernatural. Maybe I'm too much of a pragmatist to buy into movies about ghosts, spirits, demons and the like.
Still, filmmaker Mikael Hafstrom finds ways to seduce you into buying into his gruesome little fantasy. He's more focused on getting under your skin and into your head, rather than simply grossing you out with the rending of flesh and the splashing of blood.
So, in the end, what he's made is a movie about faith. Either you've got it or you don't. And if you're going to fight the Devil, you better have it -- in triplicate.
Michael Kovac (Colin O'Donoghue) doesn't think he's got it. An undertaker's son who is first seen preparing a corpse for viewing, he's about to go off to college -- to the seminary, to be specific -- to satisfy the wishes of his father (Rutger Hauer) and his late mother.
But as he tells a friend before he leaves, he doesn't have the faith to actually become a priest. He plans to take the free ride through college, get his degree, then resign before he takes his final vows.
This, of course, shocks the kindly father superior (Toby Jones), who anguishes at graduation time over the waste of such a talented student (and even hints that drop-outs' scholarships can be converted into student loans totaling $100,000 or more). He asks Michael to hold off on making a final decision -- and, oh, by the way, the Father Superior wants him to spend the summer in a training program for exorcists at the Vatican. Huh?
"Hey, a couple months in Rome -- how bad can it be?" he asks Michael. Apparently he didn't read ahead in the script.
Michael makes a bad first impression on Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds), his exorcism instructor, by walking in late to the first seminar: "Ah yes, the American," he huffs, as though the nationality were synonymous with tardiness.
But Father Xavier takes Michael under his wing and decides that this skeptic needs a more unconventional instructor. So he sends him off to meet the unorthodox Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), a gruff old veteran exorcist who has no time for skeptics.
He immediately pulls Michael into an effort to drive a demon out of a pregnant Italian girl named Rosaria (Marta Gastini), who was raped by her father. Father Lucas offers a variety of rules, including one not to look the demon in the eye should he pop out of the girl. Then, in the film's one humorous moment, he leaves Michael to carry on alone while he answers his cell phone mid-exorcism.
Otherwise, it's one long slog through Michael's introduction to the unexplainable -- and his wrestling match with his own faith. The true test comes when, after one of his exorcism subjects dies, Father Lucas himself becomes possessed by the same demon.
That leads to a demonstration reel of the latest in computer-generated effects -- specifically, close-up transformations to Hopkins' face, from pink and pudgy to dark and scaly and back again. Can the novice beat the Devil and save the master?
Hopkins, of course, is a past master at transmitting a sense of evil and cunning, having played everyone from Captain Bligh to Richard Nixon to Hannibal Lecter. So, yes, he can be chilling here. O'Donoghue is a fresh-faced newcomer who looks a lot like that actor on TV's White Collar and manages to convey anguish convincingly.
But it's hard to take a movie like The Rite, supposedly based on a true story, all that seriously. Maybe it's just me. Judging from the giggles I heard at the screening I attended, it's probably the movie, too.