By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

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Question:  Does the exorcism thriller The Rite get it right or get it wrong?

Answer:  Yes.

Which is another way of saying that it depends on how you relate to the material coming in.  Believers will exit still believing, and disbelievers will leave still disbelieving.

Anthony Hopkins (above) is the headliner, playing Father Lucas Trevant, a Roman Catholic priest from Wales who serves as a Vatican exorcist, and whose methods are unorthodox in the extreme.

But the protagonist is a deacon, Father Michael Kovak, a skeptical seminary graduate from Los Altos, Calif., played by Colin O’Donoghue (who did some inadvertent career preparation by working for his mortician father).  He’s appointed by the local bishop in San Jose as the exorcist for the diocese and is asked to go to the Vatican to take a two-month course and learn techniques for expelling demons from the possessed.

So he reluctantly accepts the task and, in hopes of reclaiming his faith, travels to Rome to become an apprentice to Father Lucas.

And before he can even unpack, he’s witness to an exorcism ritual that, despite his aching disbelief, he has trouble explaining in any but supernatural terms.

The “inspired by true events” script by Michael Petroni is loosely based on Rome-based journalist Matt Baglio’s 2009 nonfiction book, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcism, which chronicled the experience of Father Gary Thomas, who studied exorcism at Pontifical North American College and then apprenticed with a local exorcist, and who served as a consultant on the film.

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The relatively restrained screenplay offers its share of shock scares and horror-thriller conventions, but in a thoughtful, serious-minded context that never feels exploitative.

Moreover, if it weren’t for the overly insistent score, you might even call the film understated.

Which is why Father Trevant says to the young priest at one point, “What did you expect, spinning heads and pea soup?” That’s the film’s way of carving out its niche and distancing itself from The Exorcist, The Last Exorcism, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which may be less cerebral in style but are actually better overall movies.

Mikael Hafstrom, a Swedish director with other American movies on his résumé (1408, Derailed), directs this one not as a horror thriller but as a cerebral psychological drama about faith and the supernatural that poses the question, is what some of us perceive as demonic possession really an illness?

He shoots the exorcism sequences as if they are melodramatic therapy sessions, and resists the temptation to gild the lily with extravagant special effects.

But he has a devil of a time coming up with an appropriate and satisfying ending.

The estimable Hopkins — his Oscar-winning Hannibal Lecter character in The Silence of the Lambs now 20 years behind him, although he portrayed him in two sequels as well, and his other three nominations over a decade removed — continues to struggle.  Not that he hasn’t been productive in the last decade, just that he hasn’t managed to hit it out of the park during the twilight of his screen-acting career.

Well, he doesn’t do that in this instance either, but at least it’s a lively if hammy performance, one that would have been helped if his inexperienced co-lead had brought more than his wan performance to the table.

So we’ll exorcise 2½ stars out of 4 for The Rite, a devilishly disturbing demonic-possession chiller that doesn’t manage to possess us but that at least delivers a heaping helping of the heebie-jeebies.

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