You know you are in a different kind of demonic possession movie, when during the initial dramatic exorcism scene at the end of the first act, the priest performing the ritual has a cell phone go off – and takes the call. The phone belongs to Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), a long-time Welsh priest in Rome who tirelessly performs exorcisms throughout the city. Along with him during the exorcism is Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), a young seminary student from America, sent over to Rome to study the process of exorcism by his teacher (Toby Jones) in hopes to convince him to stay with the priesthood despite his doubts. When he first meets Father Lucas, in a decrepit stone house with dozens of cats running about, Michael is thoroughly skeptical, even after the patient in question, a 16-year-old pregnant girl, writhes and convulses on the ground. At first, the film seems to enjoy taking the piss out of the genre: In addition to the mid-ritual phone call, after the afflicted girl is taken off by her aunt, Michael seems unimpressed. “That’s it?” he says. “What did you expect?” Lucas replies, “pea soup?”
There are other such moments, little nods to the audience of non-believers, letting them know the filmmakers well understand their skepticism. In a later scene, when it’s clear that Michael himself is starting to have visions, he opens the door to his small apartment and finds it stuffed with hopping frogs, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he mutters. It turns out, however, the film figures it can afford to indulge audience disbelief because it has a couple of aces up its sleeve. The film claims to be “inspired” by “true events,” which is sort of the standard boilerplate for any potentially scary film in this day and age, true or not, but Michael Kovak and Father Lucas are indeed based on real men, both still at work for the Church, as documented in Matt Baglio’s nonfiction book of the same name.
The experience of the film itself remains curiously flat, however, almost too reverential of the real characters involved to really flesh them out on the screen. As Father Lucas, Hopkins gets to whisper and bellow and attempt peculiar line readings to his heart’s content, but O’Donoghue doesn’t fare nearly as well as the young, conflicted student. He seems unsure whether to play him as a jaded skeptic or an earnest believer, but you don’t really buy either interpretation. By the end, when the more subtle and understated elements of the film have devolved into a twitchy, creepy showdown between Michael and the major demon who has taken over Father Lucas himself, the film fairly drips with Catholic dogma, and leaves both men – and the legitimate questions as to the very nature of their faith – to their own devices. In the beginning, the film intriguingly makes its case for the reality of exorcisms precisely by disavowing the tropes common to the genre; by the end, it makes liberal use of those very same clichés to trump up its dramatically conclusive climax.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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