Colin O'Donoghue as Michael Kovak
Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas
Alice Braga as Angelina
Ciaran Hinds as Father Xavier
Marija Karan as Sandra
Rutger Hauer as Istvan Kovak
Toby Jones as Father Matthew
Maria Grazia Cucinota as Aunt Andria
"The Rite" asks soul-searching, heavily mythologized questions about ourselves and our relationship to evil, the most important one being 'do we need another "Exorcist" rip off?'
No. No we don't.
But that's what we get in Mikael Hafstrom's adaptation of Matt Baglio's book. Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue) is having a severe crisis of faith, so much so that he is considering dropping out of seminary before he even graduates. The Catholic Church isn't too thrilled about that and rather than let him just quit they decide to double down, sending him to Rome to train to be an exorcist so that he can truly learn to embrace God by confronting real evil.
Which sounds far more interesting than "The Rite" really is, mainly because it takes itself so seriously, acting as if it were going to be delving into the idea of exorcism and its realistic place in the world, while simultaneously trying to be a standard horror film. It's a mixed bag at best that starts out well but falls apart the more serious it gets. For the record, it's the part where the evil mule with the blood red eyes shows up.
Hafstrom ("1408") has dealt with this kind of thing before and he starts out subtly enough, examining Kovak's reasons for leaving Michigan and his father's (Rutger Hauer) mortuary business. It also frequently displays a sly and subtle sense of humor, and some real drama. It's extremely pretty to look at as well, boasting some excellent location photography from Rome from cinematographer Ben Davis.
Unfortunately, Rome is also the point at which the "The Rite" begins to transform itself into a more mundane horror film. Tired of his cynicism, Michael's exorcism instructor (Ciaran Hinds) decides to send him off for some one on one instruction with an actual working exorcist, Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins). At that point, most of the dark and evil subtext of the early film is transformed into out-and-out text as the possessed in question begin speaking in tongues and coughing up nails. Not surprisingly, this is the point where the film loses a lot of its sense of humor and the seriousness, rather than making the horror stick better, actually detracts from it.
On the other hand, the arrival of Hopkins is an unquestioned asset, with his world-weary priest openly questioning what he does but continuing to do it anyway. It's a role made for large, hammy acting, and Hopkins excels at that sort of thing. Even when he's chewing the scenery inside out--and there's quite a bit of that towards the end--he's entirely believable.
The rest of the film is less so. O'Donoghue flops between cynicism and credulousness and Alice Braga has been uncomfortably shoe-horned in as reporter trying to do a story about an exorcist (a sort of author substitute from the original book) who doesn't have any real reason to be there except that someone somewhere decided O'Donoghue needed a pretty girl to play opposite, despite the fact she can be removed from the film completely without affecting the plot.
There have been worse exorcism films made, most of them with the actual words 'The Exorcist' in the title followed by a number of some sort. Some good acting and pretty photography add a little bit of interest to "The Rite," but not much.