O’Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, an American seminary student searching for faith. He is sent to the Vatican to study a course on exorcism, and it is there that he meets Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), an unorthodox exorcist living and working in Rome. Kovak, a “doubter,” follows Father Lucas on his appointed rounds and tries to discern the truth behind all the mysticism.
The atmosphere of the film is well-constructed, and one of its strongest points. The play of dark and light, the shadowy scenes, the rain…a faintly ominous mood is fostered as Kovak finds himself in Rome and embroiled in things that, to him, seem like superstition and playacting. The sets also work well towards the feeling of ancient threat; the Vatican itself is almost mysterious with religious weight, and Lucas’ crumbling villa with its frog-infested fountain add to that feeling.
What doesn’t work is the acting, the story, and the characters. I wouldn’t say Hopkins is a bad actor, but he always strikes me as playing Hopkins. It’s intensified in the last few years, and no matter what character he’s trying to portray, it’s still him. Hopkins as himself playing a priest. Hopkins as himself playing a psychopath. After a few films seeing Hopkins playing himself playing a character…it gets tedious. Then there’s relative newcomer O’Donoghue. He just doesn’t have the presence or likeability necessary for a leading role.
As for character development, it was thin. The script must be blamed for this, and for the appalling lack of appropriate character motivation. The audiences keep hearing various characters comment on Kovak’s goodness, that they see something in him. But this “goodness” is never established. Are we supposed to assume it because we’re told it’s there? Nothing he does or says, and certainly not from the bland acting, can we begin to believe there’s more to him than meets the eye. That throws off a good portion of the story’s motivation, because without a “special-ness” to Kovak’s character, the demon wouldn’t target him. Thus the story simply misses the mark, and falls flat and forgettable.
Based on real events, this film was inspired by reporter Matt Baglio’s book, called “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist.” Baglio’s book proposal caught the producer’s attention immediately. He was intrigued when the Vatican announced a new school for exorcists and an initiative to install an exorcist in every diocese in the world. Baglio met an American priest at this course, and Kovak’s character is based on him. Father Gary (the real-life priest Kovak is based on), acted as a consultant on the film. The screenwriter who adapted the story from Baglio’s book proposal is Michael Petroni. He said of the film, “People are fascinated by the subject of possession because its existence remains an unanswered question. The story was thoroughly researched through interviews with priests and chronicles of real experiences; and what they witnessed was frightening.”
Given the background, this film could have been a thrilling horror movie. Instead it disappointed. Despite the dismal effect of this Warner Bros. release, it came out this weekend and snatched the Number 1 position at the Box Office, pushing No Strings Attached to the Number 2 position. This success doesn’t prove the merits of this film, as there is a dearth of big-budget movies out right now due to the January movie slump, and it simply doesn’t have any competition. My advice for those going to the cinema this week is to revisit some of the Oscars-buzzed gems still playing in select theatres, like The King’s Speech, or True Grit.