‘The Rite’ Goes Wrong

By Natalie Bui

Despite its array of distorted joints, twisted limbs and devilish screeches, “The Rite” concerns itself more with faith than the typical blood and guts of the genre. “What did you expect? Spinning of the heads?” Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins) says. (Actually, yes.)

American Michael Kovak (lifeless newcomer Colin O’Donoghue) travels to Italy to study under Father Lucas as a ticket out of his dead-end small town. Kovak and Lucas are sent to help a pregnant, possessed Italian 16-year-old girl that was raped by her father. The two attempt to perform an exorcism — but Kovak doesn’t believe in the devil. He just thinks the chick needs a shrink.

“The Rite” is loosely based on the real-life experiences of Father Thomas, who was brought on set to help portray the exorcism scenes as accurately as possible.

It’s the eternal power play revisited — science vs. faith. And instead of providing a convincing answer worth the almost two hours it takes to watch, director Mikael Hafstrom chooses instead to dwell in art-school cinematography (saturated flash-backs and hallucinations, shots of craftily placed rosary beads).

Michael Petroni’s script does Hafstrom no favors. Trading in frights for personal dilemmas, “The Rite” depends upon a nuanced character study; each priests’ motivations, however, become muddled as the movie progresses. Why Kovak even wants to join the superstitious seminary is a mystery to all involved — including the young man himself.

Despite philosophical missteps, the darker scenes use horror standbys to occasional success. The noises in the background — eerie organs, sort of like what you’d hear after communion — build to a “Jaws”-like crescendo, making the most insubstantial scenes appear menacing (a cat leaping from a window inspires a yelp or two). But “The Rite” has no follow-through, choosing to make nothing from the narrative’s inherent suspense.

Even the demons are duds. The shots of possessed victims inspire laughter, not fear — their bodies twist into decrepit expressions of pain, with clownishly dilated pupils and humorously wrinkled faces.

With a premise that relies on the devil’s shock value, the flick would have been more successful even if it stuck to Hollywood horror archetypes. Instead, “The Rite” tries to impart a dull sermon. Better to take a catnap in the pews. (D)

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