Friday, August 26, 2011

The Rite


Anthony Hopkins as a veteran exorcist.
By Roger Ebert

"The Rite" takes exorcism more seriously than I expected it to. It begins with the supposition that Satan is “alive and active in the world” and assumes that satanic possession takes place and that the rite of exorcism works. Otherwise, we wouldn't have a movie, would we? In metaphysical terms, I must immediately jump on the word “alive.” In what sense can a being that exists outside of time and space be said to be alive? Active, yes.
The movie is based on the actual experiences of Father Gary Thomas, a California priest who was assigned by his bishop to study exorcism at the Vatican. In "The Rite," he becomes Father Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue) from Chicago, and the closing credits tell us he's now working in a Western suburb. That's a fib. The director, Mikael Hafstrom, should say three “Hail Marys” and make a good act of contrition.

Father Michael is not a saint. He enters the seminary as a way to get a four-year college education before taking his vows, and then tries to leave the novitiate. Discovering the cost of his education would then roll over into a $100,000 student loan, he reconsiders and agrees to attend a monthlong course in Rome. This sort of detail is more refreshing than shots of him silhouetted against ancient desert structures while monks intone Gregorian chants.

In Rome, he attends classes, debates scripture, and then is advised to spent some time with an experienced exorcist, Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins). This too is from the book by Matt Baglio, although in the book, this priest is Italian. As Hopkins appears onscreen, "The Rite" slips into gear and grows solemn and effective. Hopkins finds a good note for Father Trevant: friendly, chatty, offhand, self-effacing, realistic about demonic possession but not a ranter. He takes the kid along while treating the apparent possession of a pregnant young woman.

That something happens to make people seem possessed I have no doubt. Diagnosing whether Satan is involved is above my pay grade. What I must observe is that demonic possession seems very rare, and the Church rejects the majority of such reports. Yet it approaches epidemic proportions in "The Rite," almost as if it were a virus. The film is like one of those war movies where everybody gets wounded but John Wayne.

Still, I found myself drawn in. It is sincere. It is not exploitative; a certain amount of screaming, frothing and thrashing comes with the territory. My own guess is that people get the demons they deserve. While true believers go into frenzies, the Masters of Wall Street more cruelly lose joy in their wives and homes.

In Rome, Father Lucas meets a journalist named Angeline (Alice Braga), who like most women in the movies, even journalists, lacks a second name. She follows them on assignment, but it is one of the film's virtues that she does not get romantically involved. In a correct casting decision, Braga is attractive but not a sexpot. This movie was filmed largely in Hungary. In Hollywood, the role would have had Megan Fox written all over it.

Hafstrom uses what I assume are some Hungarian interiors to go with his exteriors in Rome. A centuries-old library is especially impressive. The ancient presence of the Vatican is evoked to great effect; a reminder that although Satan is in fashion in many denominations, when you want to exorcise, you call in the experienced professionals. The priests are not blind believers. Father Kovak argues at one point that a psychiatrist might be more appropriate. When they get into the trenches with the demons, there is spiritual hand-to-hand fighting, but Father Trevant, Father Kovak and Angeline are as realistic as probably possible.

This is I suspect a more realistic film than "The Exorcist," although not its equal. The real Father Gary Thomas has cited "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" (2005) as more accurate. I admire "The Rite" because while it delivers what I suppose should be called horror, it is atmospheric, its cinematography is eerie and evocative, and the actors enrich it. It has given some thought to exorcism. Grant its assumptions, and it has something to say.

Update - From CatholicInsight.com:

(Caution: Spoilers

The Rite
By Lise Anglin

Hardcopy Issue Date: March 2011
Online Publication Date: Mar 1, 2011, 14:26

Starring Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Ciarán Hinds
Warner Brother Enterprise presents a film directed by Mikael Håfström
based loosely on a book by Matt Baglio, The Rite: The making of a modern exorcist, 2009
rated: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images, and language including sexual references.

The biggest difference between the film The Rite and the book on which it is loosely based is the character of the man called to Rome to be trained as an exorcist. In the film, this man is the fictional Michael Kovak, an affable seminarian who doubts his vocation and suffers from weak faith. In the book, this man is a real person, Father Gary Thomas, a well-educated 57-year-old American priest who was requested by his bishop in 2005 to train for the position of exorcist for his diocese. People who have read the book may find this difference distracting. However, it ends up being unimportant. Taken as a whole, the film is surprisingly accurate about the phenomenon of diabolical possession.

The film deals with three exorcisms. The first case is that of a young pregnant woman. The exorcist helping her is Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), an intense, charismatic priest originally from Wales but living alone in Italy in a suitably spooky house. Seminarian Michael Kovak is sent to train under Father Lucas. His training is hands-on. During a series of exorcisms on the young woman, Michael sees her exhibit disturbing behaviours, such as speaking a variety of languages in different voices, displaying superhuman strength, uttering obscenities, writhing, chok­ing, spitting, and convulsing when touched by a Crucifix or sprinkled with holy water. All these phenom­ena are consistently documented by reputable exorcists, which means the filmmakers did their homework. Oddly, Michael remains unconvinced of any supernatural explanation and insists the woman needs a psychiatrist.

The second case is that of a young boy who has been bitten ferociously by an evil “mule” and displays knowledge of things he cannot know through natural means. Father Lucas asks pointed questions to determine whether or not the boy is suffering from child abuse. He becomes convinced it is a genuine case of extraordinary diabolic activity. As part of the exorcism, he demands to see the boy’s pillow, tears it apart, and finds inside the confirmation of his diagnosis. Again, the filmmakers did their homework. Exorcists emphasize the importance of correct diagnosis, and do indeed report the discovery of strange hidden objects as a sign of demonic activity in some cases. At this stage in the film, the seminarian Michael begins to believe.

The third case is that of Father Lucas himself. This part of the film is the most sensationalistic and the least catechetical. Accurate reflection of Church teaching breaks down because the seminarian Michael successfully performs the exorcism on Father Lucas with the aid of a female journalist. The Catholic Church does not allow seminarians to perform exorcisms. If they attempt to do so, they are unlikely to be successful. An exorcism is to be performed only by a faithful priest appointed by his bishop. Also, experienced exorcists discourage the popular idea that the devil normally attacks the exorcist as revenge for the exorcism ritual.

The main value of this film is its generally accurate portrayal of extraordinary diabolical phenomena, as documented by such experts as Father Livio Fanzaga, Father Gabriele Amorth, Monsignor Léon Cristiani and Father Corrado Balducci, to name a few. It is to be hoped that the film will sharpen the determination of believers to follow Christ. Through a salutary fear, it could also rekindle the faith of lapsed Catholics.

Lise Anglin works at a mental health centre in Toronto. She has a deep interest in spirituality. Ω

3 comments:

Jacobitess said...

A good, much needed film and an excellent analysis by Ebert. Alas, for the casting though! To me the only glaring flaw in this film was the young priest. He just was not Anthony Hopkin's equal in either credibility or dramatic empathy.

Saint Michael Come To Our Defense said...

The problem with the actual study of demons is that, for our intents, the information is full of theological errors.

In other words, you will be up against heathen legend vs. Christian theology. It would be very difficult to sort it all out on your own.

St. Albert the Great has some advice for you:

"It is taught by the demons, it teaches about the demons, and it leads to the demons."

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Exorcism movies do not edify souls.

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Saint Michael Come To Our Defense said...

Miss Jacobitess,

I enjoyed viewing this story at your blog:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyJ0bWlruyA&feature=player_embedded

I hope Mr. Vincenzo promotes it.

God be with you.

pablo

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