By Sean O'Connell
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 11:18 AM
Did you know that the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which erupted last spring and engulfed Iceland in an ash cloud, actually was ignited by Satan just so a skeptical priest studying exorcisms in Rome wouldn't be able to fly back to the United States to be by his ailing father's bedside?
And were you aware that the Vatican, which can't even find enough priests to fill its churches, has conceived an elaborate plan to place a trained exorcist in every neighborhood parish as a response to the church's escalating claims of demonic possession?
Those are but two of many inane lessons - we'll call them gospel "truths" - preached by Mikael Hafstrom's "The Rite," a run-of-the-mill chiller that spends an inordinate amount of time flirting with unconventional scare tactics before sacrificing all of its ingenuity to become the latest in a long line of "The Exorcist" clones.
That's disappointing, primarily because the exorcism sect, a sub-genre of the much-larger horror genre, has come a long way since William Friedkin's 1973 masterpiece. "The Rite" cleverly acknowledges the baggage we now bring to any Satan-centric thriller: A seasoned priest turns to his young protege after their first, relatively quiet, exorcism and asks, "What'd you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?" But Hafstrom largely ignores the progress made by his demon-banishing predecessors and delivers a palatable PG-13 thriller that's safe, soft and sinfully cliched.
Hafstrom tells his story - based on Matt Baglio's book "The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist," which allegedly was inspired by true events - through the eyes of Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue), a handsome skeptic who enters the priesthood to avoid working for his mortician father (Rutger Hauer). After four years of schooling, however, Michael still isn't convinced that a life of celibacy and service is his calling, so the aptly titled Father Superior (Toby Jones) takes a leap of faith. He assigns Michael to an innovative exorcism school the church has opened in Rome, where the student trains under the watchful eye of veteran spirit slayer Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins).
Once Hafstrom's pawns have moved into place, "The Rite" systematically works its way down a preordained checklist of exorcism-movie staples. A holy man of wavering faith must bear witness to writhing bodies, demonic voices springing from innocent teenage girls, heads that twist 180 degrees on rubbery necks, and a classically trained Hollywood icon (Hopkins in place of "The Exorcist's" Max von Sydow) hamming it up to suggest the Prince of Darkness's presence.
Perhaps the greatest sin Hafstrom commits with "The Rite," however, is restraint. Despite what marketing materials lead you to believe, "The Rite" serves more as a drawn-out psychological wrestling match between a faithful servant of God and a nonbeliever than it does as a Gothic horror film. Hafstrom trots out cheap jolts every so often to keep the audience awake, but the film isn't ever deranged enough to be considered disturbing, and the minimal scares couldn't be more generic.
At almost every turn, "The Rite" pulls its punches. It raises the debatable topic of religion vs. science, then retreats before saying anything interesting. It introduces a wild-card character blessed with the heavenly moniker Angeline (played by the lovely Alice Braga). She's a journalist enrolled in Kovak's exorcism class, but "The Rite" fails to explain why the church would open its doors to a nosy reporter intent on publishing a scathing expose on the ancient practice.
And then there is the film's cardinal sin, the worst offense committed by Hafstrom and his crew. Kovak and Trevant's main antagonist is Rosario (Marta Gastini), an Italian teenager exhibiting signs of demonic possession. She speaks in tongues. She has an insatiable itch at the base of her skull that she viciously scratches. Her body bends and contorts as if she were playing Twister on a board that only she can see. And she's pregnant. Yet while Hafstrom repeatedly suggests that Rosario is carrying Satan's spawn, he stops short of delivering a demonic baby. Papal fail. It's the cinematic equivalent of bypassing 20 Hail Marys as you pray the rosary, or skipping the final four Stations of the Cross.
Sorry, "Rite." That's just wrong.
email@example.com O'Connell is a freelance reviewer.
r Â½ PG-13. At area theaters. Contains disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images and language including sexual references. 112 minutes.