The movie was inspired by a book by Matt Baglio, a journalist who traveled to Rome with an American priest who was training to be an exorcist. Yes, the Vatican evidently offers such a course. I haven't read Baglio's book -- subtitled The Making of a Modern Exorcist -- so I have no idea how much license was taken by screenwriter Michael Petroni.
What arrives on screen is a darkly hued tale that focuses on a priest in training (Colin O'Donoghue), a young man who discovers his faith by encountering demonic forces that possess a pregnant teen-ager (raped by her father) and a boy who claims that he has been kicked by a demonic red-eyed mule.
At first O'Donoghue's Michael Kovak doesn't believe in the devil; in fact, he's not even sure he believes in God. He attends a seminary mostly to get away from his father's mortuary business and to obtain an education he couldn't otherwise afford. One of Michael's teachers (Toby Jones) realizes that Michael is bright and that he can deal with crisis situations. The preist refuses to believe that anyone winds up in a seminary without at least the hint of a calling; he sends Michael to Rome to enroll in exorcism school.
The exorcism class is taught by Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds). Sensing Michael's skepticism, Father Xavier arranges for Michael to meet Hopkins' Father Lucas. A journalist (Alice Braga), who's taking the exorcism course for an article, asks for Michael's help in meeting Lucas, which he eventually provides.
That's the set-up, but there really isn't all that much more to the movie.
The exorcisms play like outtakes from The Exorcist, proving that the 1973 classic still tops this apparently inexhaustible field. When Father Lucas receives a cell phone call during an exorcism, you may find yourself wondering why the filmmakers didn't switch gears and turn The Rite into a comedy. No such luck; the yuks here are inadvertent.
It might have been more interesting had Father Lucas and Michael been forced to match wits with the Devil rather than engaging in the shouting matches that crop up between dull stretches of exposition.
The movie does, however, espouse one interesting idea: The devil isn't necessarily interested in showmanship. If people don't believe in him, his work becomes easier: He can wreak havoc without people putting up their guards.
One of the movie's plot twists -- you know what it is if you've seen the trailer -- encourages Hopkins to go way over the top. The rest of the cast pretty much stands back and watches, as if witnessing an erupting volcano. The other actors aren't bad, but they don't particularlky matter. Nor do creepy flashbacks to Michael's youth in which his undertaker father (Rutger Hauer) prepares Michael's mother's corpse for burial.
Director Mikael Håfström includes some gross-out sights, and the movie provides a few jolts. But its overall arc is entirely predictable, and Hopkins' performance is so exaggerated that you wonder whether he's channeling left-over bits from his Hannibal Lecter portrayals. Maybe he was inspired by Alex Heffes' incessant and obviously ominous score.
Whatever happened, The Rite doesn't present Hopkins at his memorable best nor, I'm afraid, is it intriguing enough to give the devil his due.