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Movie Review

Exorcist brings ham, not horror

Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas and Colin O’Donoghue as Father Michael in “The Rite.’’ Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas and Colin O’Donoghue as Father Michael in “The Rite.’’ (Egon Endrenyi)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 28, 2011

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There’s truly a satanic force at work in the logy exorcism thriller “The Rite,’’ and it goes by the name of Anthony Hopkins. The august Oscar-winner and Knight of the British Empire isn’t the film’s star — that would be the handsome but particle-board dull Colin O’Donoghue as Michael Kovak, a junior priest and devoted skeptic — but Hopkins takes possession of “The Rite’’ with wit, impatience, and, when it counts, a stentorian bellow the late Richard Burton might have envied. You can almost hear one generation’s greatest hambone saluting his heir across the great divide.

As directed by Mikael Håfström (whose 2005 Jennifer Aniston melodrama “Derailed’’ was a lot more fun), the film takes its sweet time getting going. The opening 30 minutes are a series of back stories that lead Father Michael to Rome and exorcism training with the “unorthodox’’ Welsh priest Father Lucas (Hopkins). First Michael has to survive growing up with a mortician dad played by Rutger Hauer; then he has to get through seminary aided by a Father Superior (Toby Jones) with a knack for causing auto accidents; once in Rome, the doctrinaire Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds) steers the young doubter to his true mentor. So many skilled scenery chewers in supporting roles, and they still can’t make up for the void in the center that is O’Donoghue.

Eventually “The Rite’’ settles into its real story, with Hopkins playing a sort of shaggy Catholic Yoda leading his young Luke Baal-swatter through the basics of demonic pest-control. Bringing a young, very pregnant Italian girl (Marta Gastini) into his moldy sanctum, Father Lucas mutters a few words, taps her on the forehead, and — hey, presto — she’s cured. “What did you expect?’’ he asks the bewildered Father Michael. “Spinning heads? Pea soup?’’

Well, yes, but not to worry, the special effects break out before long, and the girl gets to run the gamut of icky possession as the movies have understood it since 1973’s “The Exorcist.’’ “The Rite’’ is more interested in creepy atmosphere than full-on horror, though, and while the slow, patient plod of its story line is interesting at first, the unvarying pace turns funereal and ultimately vexing. Nor does the appearance of an evil mule crank up the suspense to acceptable levels.

The movie is “suggested by’’ Matt Baglio’s “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist,’’ a supposedly nonfiction account of a working exorcist — “suggested by’’ possibly meaning that the producers know someone who read the book. The narrative through-line is Father Michael’s inner struggle to overcome his uncertainty and truly believe in God (and thus the Other Guy), but O’Donoghue rarely lets anything as prosaic as an emotion cross his face. One of the movie’s few pleasures is watching the actor’s scenes with Alice Braga, playing an Italian journalist intent on telling “the truth’’ about exorcism. Two gorgeous specimens of acting humanity, they make you regret the Church’s position on celibacy.

The movie’s primary pleasure is Hopkins, who manages to take the role of Father Lucas seriously without being serious about it at all. How many priests do you know who pause mid-exorcism to take a call on their cell? Or who, suffering a mild spot of possession themselves, call their assistant priests “kissy-lips’’? Hopkins knows over-acting is the only way to keep both himself and us awake — O’Donoghue’s a lost cause — and in the final scenes he goes the distance, howling at all the absurdities a great actor has to contend with. Before then, he’s merely distracted, subversive, and very, very funny.

It’d be nice to think the devil made him do it, but it was probably the paycheck.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

THE RITE

Directed by: Mikael Håfström

Written by: Michael Petroni, “suggested by’’ a book by Matt Baglio

Starring: Colin O’Donoghue, Anthony Hopkins, Alice Braga

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 112 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images, and language including sexual references)

In English, Italian, and Demon, with subtitles

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