If you blinked this past January, you probably missed the theatrical run of the theological thriller, The Rite. The Anthony Hopkins vehicle was poorly marketed, with promotional materials that sold the film as though it were the typical post-Lecter Hopkins fare, with posters of the actor staring menacingly with his baby blues through a cut-out crucifix, and trailers featuring him…well…doing much of the same. The thing is, The Rite is actually an ensemble piece, with a really great cast that includes not only Hopkins, but also Alice Braga, Ciarin Hinds, Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones, and the fantastic Colin O’Donoghue, who serves as the film’s emotional and spiritual epicenter. Had the film been marketed as the smart, adult thriller that it is, I’ve a feeling that it may have made much more of an impact upon its release. Thankfully, home video affords films like this a second chance, and The Rite, while somewhat flawed, certainly deserves one.
O’Donoghue stars as Michael Kovak, a young mortician who works and lives with his father, Istvan (Hauer) at the family funeral home. In Michael’s family, you are one of two things; a mortician or a priest, so, in a desperate bid to escape his small town life and the family business, Michael enrolls in seminary school. Upon his graduation, Michael decides that the church may not be for him after all, and informs the school of his decision not to take his final vows. Father Matthew (Jones) sees a lot of potential in Michael, however, and tells him about an exorcism class that’s taught in Rome that was added to the curriculum in response to a record number of exorcism requests worldwide. He informs Michael that if he chooses not to take his vows, the school could potentially go after him for his tuition as it would now be considered a student loan. He then gives him the option to take the course, and, if after two months he still wants out of the priesthood, they’ll discuss it.
Michael soon arrives in Rome where he meets his instructor, Father Xavier (Hinds). It’s not long before Michael’s lack of faith becomes apparent to Xavier, so he decides that Michael requires a more unorthodox introduction to the art of the exorcism. Xavier sends him to meet Father Lucas Trevant, a Welsh exorcist who has been practicing in Rome for decades. When Michael arrives, he finds himself instantly involved in the exorcism of Rosaria (Marta Gastini), a pregnant teenager who Lucas has been treating for months. Clearly underwhelmed by the experience, Lucas informs Michael that exorcisms aren’t all “spinning heads and pea soup”, and that, in some cases, it can take months or even years to liberate a subject’s soul.
Michael, now more disillusioned than ever, takes to the streets of Rome where he runs into a classmate, Angeline (Braga) – a reporter who’s taking the exorcism class as part of her research for a story. When she finds out that Michael is working with Lucas – a man she’s been trying to interview for weeks – she asks him to share his experiences with her. At first, Michael is reticent, but, as he becomes more convinced that Lucas is a charlatan and that his subjects are mentally ill people in need of medical help, he agrees. That is, of course, until Michael starts to see things even he can’t explain, and, as Lucas warns, “choosing not to believe in the devil doesn't protect you from him.”
For the first two acts, The Rite is a creepy and fascinating look at a young man in the throes of a crisis of faith and his relationship with a man for whom faith is the only weapon in an age-old battle between good and evil. Hopkins is deliriously entertaining as the wearily eccentric exorcist, while O’Donoghue balances Hopkins’ mania with a grounded and thoroughly engaging performance as Michael. Director Mikael Håfström (“1408”) creates a film that’s rich with atmosphere and symbolism, with all manner of gothic flourishes and religious iconography befitting the subject matter, while Michael Patroni’s screenplay manages to maintain plausibility while still delivering sufficient chills. That is until the somewhat formulaic third act, which is where the film devolves into standard supernatural fare, abandoning eerie suggestion for in-your-face horror. It’s still handled well above average for the genre, but I much prefer the film’s earlier, more cynical bits where it called to mind the best bits of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, where the supernatural bits were left open to interpretation.
The Rite is comes to Blu-ray with a devilishly handsome 2.40:1 1080p transfer that maintains the film’s dark and shadowy aesthete without sacrificing any of the sumptuous detail the image affords. Facial features and textures are exceptionally well represented, contrast is well-balanced, and, save for the occasional bout of softness (I only noticed this in a couple of exterior shots), the image is very crisp and well-defined.
The accompanying 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is excellent! Atmospheric effects, like pelting rain or the bustling streets of Rome, are organic and true, while dialogue is clear and high in the mix. During the exorcisms, themselves, there are subtle whispers and groans that fill the room, making these tense scenes all the more harrowing. Once the rumbling bass kicks in, you’ll swear you were in the bowels of hell, itself!
Extras are limited to a short featurette entitled The Rite: Soldier of God (HD), which offers a few interviews with principal cast and crewmembers as well as author, Matt Baglio, and Father Gary Thomas, the real life exorcist upon whom Baglio’s book is based. We also get a collection of superfluous deleted scenes (HD), an alternate ending (HD), and trailers for this and other Warner Brothers releases.
The Rite is a very competently made and well-acted film with an unnerving premise that’s handled remarkably well until it succumbs to genre trappings. Much like The Last Exorcism, which treads similar turf, the best bits are the ones in which we get to pull back the veil of this mysterious and controversial practice, which The Rite does expertly in the early going. The Blu-ray from Warner Brothers offers great picture and audio quality, but lacks in terms of extras, so, unless you’re a hardcore Hopkins fan or a devotee of the exorcism genre, you may want to give this one a rent before buying. Personally, I enjoyed this one much more than I expected to, especially given the film’s lackluster critical/commercial performance, and I have a feeling that, given its second life on home video, The Rite will get the audience it deserves.