Thirty minutes into the exorcism thriller, The Rite, Anthony Hopkins shows up. And for this performance, playing a grizzled, whimsical Welsh exorcist plying his trade in the working class back alleys of Rome, Sir Tony packed the prosciutto.
This isn't just ham, served with a side of fava beans and a little Chianti. This is the good stuff, a hint of Hannibal Lecter in white collar, questioning the faith of the young cleric sent to study with him, testing him, hissing at him, waiting for a knock at the door.
"Speak of the Devil," he cracks. And when Father Lucas shows young Michael (Colin O'Donoghue) his first demonic possession and interrupts the prayer he says over a suffering girl to take a cell phone call, you can feel the wink the old Oscar winner is sending our way, even as his back is turned.
"What did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?"
But if Hopkins is fine Italian ham on the hoof, the movie's heavy lifting is done by a guinea pig. The little-known Irish actor O'Donoghue is so stunningly uncharismatic that he kills whatever possibilities this picture from the director of the silly-scary-smart 1408 had.
Michael (O'Donoghue) is the son of a mortician whose father (the under-utilized Rutger Hauer) taught him the trade by letting him watch the embalming of his own mother. In Michael's household, "You're either a mortician or a priest." Michael has no faith, but a tragic accident at the end of his seminary training wins him a trip to Rome to study exorcism.
Father Lucas engages the kid in theological debates as he drags him along to deal with a troubled boy and then a pregnant teen certain she is carrying Satan's seed. The exorcist's arguments about the Devil's disguises don't win over Michael.
"No proof of the Devil is somehow proof of the Devil?" the kid cracks.
"Choosing not to believe in the Devil won't protect you from him."
Alice Braga shows up as a reporter hanging out around Exorcism U., sniffing for a story and perhaps tempting our not-really-a-priest. But Michael begins to have his doubts about his lack of belief when he hears speaking in tongues, insults only he can understand. And one victim starts spitting up nails from "the True Cross."
Director Mikael Hafstrom, working from a Michael Petroni script, tries an arty approach, framing shots behind dangling Rosary beads, delivering vivid flashbacks and hallucinations that give Michael pause. The effects -- of course there are body-contorting effects -- are sharper than what you saw in The Last Exorcism and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. But frights? Not so many.
Only Hopkins, readily referencing his bag of tricks, seems to get what to make of this "inspired by true events (and a book by Matt Baglio)" hooey. He plays it light until the big confrontation scenes, where he trots out Hannibal in everything but name. Swap "Clarice" for "Michael" in these Satanic interrogations and the ham makes you think of lambs, silent lambs. And fava beans.