This is the sixth and final article in Rev. Malone's series looking at films featuring various aspects of the Catholic church, investigating particularly the authenticity of their protrayals of Catholicism. The first installment focused on Of Gods and Men, the second on Brighton Rock, the third on Black Robe, the fourth on Mass Appeal, and the fifth on The Fighting 69th.
It should be said that The Rite is particularly Catholic-friendly. Catholic audiences who are getting older would be more at home with the film, especially the first part. Younger Catholics could be intrigued by the information given. Christian believers will find the film interesting.
It is "inspired by" (not based on) material from a book on possession, exorcism, and the story of Fr Gary Thomas, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, by American Italy-based investigative writer, Matt Baggio. Fr Gary Thomas is parish priest of Sacred Heart, Saratoga, diocese of San Jose, who, when he went on sabbatical, his bishop asked him to attend the exorcism course in Rome. He did not have a crisis of faith (as his fictional counterpart in the film does). He was appointed exorcist for his diocese and works with a team of psychologists, psychiatrists, and other priests. He says that most of those who approach him suffer from mental illness rather than possession. He sees his work as a healing ministry of the Church.
Even while the Warner Bros logo is still on screen, we hear a voice ask "Do you believe in sin?." Then follows something unusual for a commercial film, a papal quotation. It is from John Paul II about St Michael casting Satan down to hell, something which must continue today. Part of the reason for Catholics being at home with the film, is that in the early sequences we see crucifixes, rosary beads, statues of the Sacred Heart, Mary, St Therese, and a recurring picture of a Guardian Angel.
The film is in two parts, each asking for a different response from the audience. The first part focuses more on theory, arguments pro and con possession; the second depicts cases, which move the action into a more melodramatic phase.
The first part is more "reasonable." A young man, Michael Kovaks (Colin O'Donogue), helping his father in his mortician's business, decides to get away from home, receives a scholarship, and goes to a seminary. At the time of his diaconate, he has doubts about his personal faith and emails a request to leave. The diaconate ceremony is shown in some detail and looks real. When his seminary director (Toby Jones) slips on an icy footpath and causes a car to swerve and hit a girl on a bike, Michael, the young seminarian, is asked by the dying girl for absolution. He prays over her very movingly. His superior (warning/blackmailing him that were he to leave he would forfeit his scholarship and would have to repay it – money and the American Church!) sends him to Rome for the course in Exorcism.
The spiritual director also sounds contemporary, addicted to nicorettes, discussing money, the average age of sisters, priestless parishes, needs for an exorcist in dioceses.
The scenes in the exorcism course, delivered by a Dominican, Fr Xavier (Ciaran Hinds looking and sounding like a real, and sympathetic as well as intellectual Dominican), present the questions and queries an audience might have about possession and exorcism. Psychological arguments about mental illness are put forward and whether psychotic behaviour could be confused with possession. A figure (open to query) is given: half a million possessions reported to the Vatican each year and 'orders sent down' that there should be an exorcist in every diocese. The statistic at the end of the film mentions that, in fact, there are only fifteen in the US. There is also talk of there being, just as with angels, a hierarchy of demons. The exorcist needs to elicit the name of the demon who fears being named and is afraid of sacred objects. The phenomena are to be viewed
"through the lens of faith."
Michael is sent by Fr Xavier, to visit an old Welsh Jesuit who lives out of Rome, a former doctor, who has performed many exorcisms, Fr Lukas (Anthony Hopkins, giving an intelligent and generally restrained performance). He invites Michael to observe and participate in examinations of the possessed - a pregnant 16 year-old girl who had been raped by her father, a young boy who has mule prints on his back and torso, both of whom know secrets about Michael. The interview and exorcism sequences are detailed, with Latin prayers, holy water, and a strange amount of control displayed by Fr Lukas, who can also be offhand, answer his mobile phone, and can terminate the prayers very quickly and be back to normal. He asks a surprised Michael, "What did you expect, spinning heads and vomit?"
Fr Lukas has a number of observations: on atheists always wanting proofs, but what would we do if we found them; on his being an ordinary man, with God’s fingernail scraping from darkness to light; and, "choosing not to believe in the devil will not protect you from him."
Michael talks things over with a young woman (Alice Braga), a journalist who is doing the course, researching a feature article.
The second part of the film may not appeal so much to Christian viewers and could give audiences a fright. As one might be guessed, the exorcist is open and vulnerable to demonic attacks. Fr Lukas himself is taken over by a demon, giving Anthony Hopkins some heightened histrionic moments. This is the challenge for Michael who has just received news that his father has died and has experienced hallucinations, including a phone call from his father. The possessed Fr Lukas uses this knowledge to torment, quite diabolical in its destructive insinuations, both Michael and the journalist about their lives and their families.
As might be expected, this is the test for Michael, who is being tormented by dreams, apparitions (a room full of frogs), images of his dead mother and her influence on his choice of priesthood, to perform the ritual despite his doubts and to recover the gift of faith. He is challenged to believe in the devil and then believe in God (symbolised by the crucifix on his rosary beads that he had bent back in unbelief at his mother's funeral and which he now bends back to normal).
With the journalist present, Michael goes through the rituals, being abused and deceived by the possessed Fr Lukas in some melodramatic moments.
Given the crises in the American Church at the time concerning priesthood, The Rite is remarkably respectful of priesthood and vocational choices.
The question, "Do you believe in sin?" is repeated at the end of the film, but, there is a very pleasing line spoken by the healed Fr Lukas, who had already suggested an image of God's presence to doubters, "God's fingernail" touching them, and then to Michael after his exertions, "Faith becomes you."
Rev. Peter Malone (MSC) reviews films regularly for SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication, an organization of media professionals in the global Roman Catholic church. Go here to read all his recent reviews.