By John Mulderig/CNS
NEW YORK (CNS) — Any movie that opens with a quotation from Pope John Paul II and ends with the sight of a dedicated priest hearing his parishioners’ confessions is well calculated to win the support and approval of viewers of faith. And so it is with the religiously honorable drama "The Rite" (Warner Bros.).
Considered purely as a piece of cinema, however, this descent into the tortured world of the demonically possessed, and of those who courageously minister to them, proves aesthetically tentative, its ultimate impact weakened by the effort to showcase its main character’s spiritual journey — a conversion tale based on real events — as an old-fashioned chillfest.
That central character is skeptical seminarian Michael Kovak, played by feature film newcomer Colin O’Donoghue in an impressive first outing.
Having pursued priestly studies mainly to get a free college education and avoid following in the footsteps of his undertaker father, Istvan (Rutger Hauer) — with whom he shares a tangled relationship — Michael sends off a resignation e-mail soon after his ordination as a transitional deacon.
But the recipient of his message — his superior, Father Matthew (Toby Jones) — is convinced that Michael possesses at least the pastoral qualities of a good priest. So, to forestall his departure, Father Matthew dispatches Michael to Rome to complete a Vatican-sponsored course in exorcism.
There Michael vents his ongoing doubts — not just about devils and such, but about the very existence of God as well — both to fellow student Angeline (Alice Braga), an Italian reporter who has enrolled in the class for research purposes, and to their instructor, Dominican Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds).
Knowing a hard case when he sees one, Father Xavier arranges for Michael to serve an informal apprenticeship with veteran demon fighter Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), a forthright Welshman renowned for his unusual but effective approach to his work.
The inexplicable experiences that follow, as Father Lucas and his initially reluctant protege wrestle with the dark forces at work on pregnant teen Rosaria (Marta Gastini, another newcomer), force Michael to reassess his secular certainties.
The idea that a contemporary doubter should be moved toward belief in the source of absolute good by witnessing the effects of absolute evil run amok is certainly an intriguing one.
And a few shaky details along the way — as when Michael, though only a deacon, appears to be giving absolution to a dying victim at the scene of a car accident — can easily be overlooked in light of screenwriter Michael Petroni and director Mikael Hafstrom’s resounding affirmation faith and the value of priestly ministry.
But Michael’s story — a fictionalized version of the life of Father Gary Thomas of the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., as recounted in journalist Matt Baglio’s 2009 book, "The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist" — would have been more effectively presented on its own terms.
Instead, it has been wedged, somewhat uncomfortably, into the mold of a conventional horror movie. The effect is to diffuse — and slightly diminish — its valuable underlying message, though enough of that endures to make the picture, despite the objectionable features listed below, possibly acceptable for mature teens.
The film contains incest and suicide themes, some gruesome imagery, incidental irreverence, a couple of uses of profanity and a few rough and crude terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.