More schizophrenic than its diabolically infested characters, "The Rite" is partly a slow-burning horror flick and partly a Vatican recruitment video. God knows the Roman Catholic Church needs a new P.R. initiative, with the priesthood advancing in age, declining in numbers and, shall we say, a bit shorn of its traditional prestige. So why not cast studly young Irishman Colin O'Donoghue as a doubt-plagued Yank seminarian who finds the divine strength to tangle with the Father of Lies and the brooding charisma that makes the chicks swoon? I mean, they swoon chastely, and at a distance, and with their pants on, because he's a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven and all. Or he's about to become one, or something; "The Rite" kind of wants to have it both ways on the sex stuff, which may also be how Michael Kovak, O'Donoghue's character, feels about it. Ambiguity can be hot too!
O'Donoghue has apparently decided that the way to play a sexy American almost-priest is to mumble in a monotone and stumble through this entertaining but thoroughly cracked film as if he were half-asleep. It doesn't help him much that his feature-film debut comes opposite Anthony Hopkins, one of the great actors of this or any other age, giving perhaps the best performance of his highly miscellaneous post-Hannibal Lecter career. Kovak has come to Rome to be trained as an exorcist, even though he suspects it's all a bunch of hogwash, and gets farmed out to Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), a mild-mannered Welshman with a sarcastic demeanor who matches wits with Lucifer's minions on a near-daily basis.
After Lucas introduces him to a pregnant teenager whose problem seems to be a combination of incestuous abuse and a psychotic breakdown, rather than demonic possession, Michael isn't impressed. Lucas blinks at him, like a cat: "What did you expect? Spinning heads, pea soup?" Demons, he explains, are like burglars or invaders hiding in your house -- they would prefer that you not see them. Michael presses on: Does Lucas really think these stories about evil supernatural entities are true? And here comes the blank feline expression again, along with the inscrutable cutting remark: "Ah, the truth. Yeah. Certainty."
Hopkins is just getting warmed up with his devastating little throwaway lines, though. At least in the movies, I think he gets bored unless he plays characters driven by powerful evil or anger or passion, and without giving too much away let's just say that Lucas will be filled with all that and more before "The Rite" is over. When that calm Welsh visage is animated by spite, and that sarcastic tongue is turned to the service of the great deceiver, we get several minutes of high-order rapid-fire Hopkins showboating, from hilarious anti-American mockery to messages from the souls suffering in hell to discussions of what exactly Michael would like to do with crusading journalist Angeline (Alice Braga).
Director Mikael Håfström and screenwriter Michael Petroni (adapting journalist Matt Baglio's credulous account of modern-day exorcism) do a decent job of stitching some horror-movie scares and ominous, David Lynch-style dream sequences together with some reasonably authentic Catholic theology and a conventional fable about doubt and faith. If it's a nonsensical patchwork quilt, it's mostly a watchable one, with supporting performances from Ciarán Hinds and Rutger Hauer (which is a lot of long, gloomy faces for one movie). That's likely to be a highly successful marketing strategy, given how few mainstream pictures are aimed at observant Catholics, but it may also provide some reassurance to those of us who find the demonic-possession angle wildly implausible, and who suspect that exorcists are preying on the mentally ill. (Yes, church ladies: I know that exorcists work in concert with shrinks, and that they seek to differentiate psychiatric delusions from what they consider genuine possession.)
When Angeline asks Michael whether he's having his "last fling" with atheism, he laughs: "It's more like an ex-girlfriend who keeps coming around." Personally, I might be more comfortable with that ex than with his new wife. But on balance it's less depressing to have a church that takes its own doctrines seriously, and genuinely believes it is waging an apocalyptic struggle against evil, than one that seems to be running a devious con game on more than a billion people.