January 24, 2011


“The Rite” is not scary. Not for adults (and I’m a scaredy-cat adult) at least. But it’s a good story with lots of thought-provoking dialogue.

An almost-ordained American seminarian, Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donaghue), winds up in Rome at “exorcist’s school,” but his skepticism and doubts about the devil AND God continue to plague him. His Rome professor sends him off to an unorthodox but experienced and successful exorcist, Fr. Lucas (Anthony Hopkins--in both a brilliant and delightful performance--makes a great priest), in order to be “convinced.” But Michael is a tough nut to crack and remains of the belief that all he is witnessing is psychological pathologies.

The film avoids clich├ęs and puns about the devil, but manages a very sophisticated humor in the face of evil—something that just rings so true. God and humans are fun and funny, Satan is not. He’s kinda angry and takes himself very seriously and is closed to and incapable of any originality.

Is this a film about faith? Yes, but not just religious/theological faith--which it is, explicitly! It’s also about human faith in our fellows, in ourselves, and in where “life” leads us. When we can’t see the total picture, we need to believe there is a “reason,” that somehow things make sense in spite of our limitations, in spite of ourselves, and that we’re all on the way—we’re not there yet—and it’s not terribly helpful to dig our heels in in disbelief. Life is not static. Michael makes the mistake of equating truth with certainty, something no one is entitled to.

Accuracy? The film is “suggested” by the book “The Rite,” by Matt Baglio, a journalist, and the book is based on Baglio’s experiences as he accompanied an American exorcist, Fr. Gary Thomas, through his exorcist’s training in Rome. Fr. Gary was available for interviews to promote the film which I thought was odd, since generally exorcists keep a low profile. But perhaps--with his bishop’s permission I’m assuming--and in an effort to educate (and re-educate) the public about the reality of the demonic, this might be seen as a “catechetical” effort. It's also a bit vocational--not that anyone would or should aspire to being an exorcist, but it shows priests standing up to evil....

The movie gets a few things askew that are probably only irritating to Catholic geeks like myself: 1) the movie keeps talking about Michael getting ready to take his vows. Diocesan priests don’t take vows. They get ordained, and make a promise to the bishop. 2) The devil keeps calling Michael “priest,” but he’s not yet. Maybe the devil respected him like a priest or something, but the devil is pretty shrewd and only obeys ordained authorities. If even that. 3) Um, a doubting, in-a-vocational-crisis seminarian would NOT be sent to Rome to exorcist’s school. 4) The screenwriter couldn’t resist having a little bit of a showdown between the faith/strength of the exorcist and the temptations/strength of the devil. But it’s not about that, even though Satan would love to destroy all people and especially priests and exorcists. It’s about God vs. the devil. But it seems to be so hard for film to take God seriously as a real character, a real person who really acts. But “The Rite,” does not totally miss the mark on this! St. Michael and Our Lady majorly figure in, too, which is quite correct. Who-Is-Like-God? Viva la Virgen! Actually, "The Rite," does a fine, fine job of making spiritual things, the spiritual world, palpable.

Fr. Gabriel Amorth (who is one of our Society of St. Paul priests and former exorcist of Rome) wrote two best-selling books printed in English by Ignatius Press: “An Exorcist Tells His Story,” and “More Exorcist Stories.” I held off reading them for a long time because I felt they would be sensational, and who wants to give Old Scratch any limelight, anyway? But when I read them, they were very instructional about how evil works, even in very ordinary circumstances. Without going into a lot of details, my first encounter with manifestations of a demonic nature and deliverance prayer (NOT said by me) was in the Charismatic Renewal in the 90’s. I was instructed in and read a little about it back then. There are different levels of demonic interference: infestation, obsession, etc. “Possession” is a total taking-over the person by a demon—or as much as a demon is capable of invading a person.

It’s important to know that a person is not always to blame for this interference. The first books I read said there are three ways that the devil gains entrance:

1. Dabbling in the occult or explicitly calling on Satan.
2. A life of unrepented sin.
3. Emotional wounds inflicted by others.

Fr. Amorth added another in his books:
4. We’re not very bad, we’re very good, and Satan tries to stop us from doing more good.

The important thing to remember is that no matter what the case, Satan can’t force our will. As long as we’re alive there’s hope, and often this interference can be healed with the help of the ministry of the Church.

The movie, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” which IS scary--based on the true story of a young woman in Germany--bears out #4 above. We might think that getting possessed is the worst thing that could happen to us, and although it’s totally dire, the worst thing that can happen to us is that we freely choose to sin. As Fr. Jeffrey Grob—Chicago’s exorcist since 2006--said in a recent article in the Chicago Sun-Times: “One good sacramental confession is more powerful than 100 exorcisms.”


--Interesting, good stuff about how a vocation can work in someone’s life, and, indirectly, the call to celibacy for the Kingdom.

--Stuff I question (even for poetic license): “A persistent tremor in a limb” is a sign of possession?

--Love those sourpuss Italian priests and nuns! Ha ha ha.

--True: “Spiritual liberation can take months or years.”

--True: Exorcists don’t always know how things will turn out….

--True: The work of exorcism takes its toll on the exorcist.

--Fr. Lucas gives lots of great advice.

--Movie really brings out how much Satan hates us.

--Movie actually moves a bit slowly in places, breaking the tension.

--O'Donoghue also makes a good seminarian, but is a bit one-tone, one-note, one-mood. Perhaps he could have played it slightly more nuanced?

--VERY interesting how temptations to fornicate are seen as coming straight from hell.

--The devil knows all our weaknesses and sins and knows a lot about a lot of things. Except how to love.

Chicago exorcist: The ‘evil one’ is very real - Chicago Sun-Times

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January 10, 2011


“Season of the Witch” is one of those movies that had such potential, but drowns (like the three women accused of being witches in the first scene) under the weight of its own petering out of imagination. The premise was solid, the casting was appropriate, the execution mostly enjoyable: What went wrong?

A frail, pretty young woman (the fetching Claire Foy from “Little Dorrit” whom we’ll be seeing plenty more of) is accused of being a powerful witch who has brought a deadly plague on every town she passes through. Two errant knight-crusaders (Nicholas Cage and the always spot-on Ron Perlman) are charged with bringing her safely to a monastery where she will have a fair trial. So far so good. The best scenes are the subtle, creepy interactions with “the witch,” a harmless looking creature, but as soon as you engage in conversation with her, she will find your weakness and use it against you.*

Without giving too much away, the whole thing climaxes with a ridiculous-looking, goofy, gray winged gargoyle that looks like an enhanced Antz. After tons and tons of supernatural powers and special effects, this wimpy reptilian bad guy can be pinned against the wall in mano a mano fighting with Nic Cage. Yeesh.

There are uneven directing and editing problems, also. So many times I wanted to shout: “Cut! Cut!” And some of the camera movements are so Austin Powers-like, I couldn’t believe the folks in my cinema didn’t burst out laughing. But these missteps occur in the middle of some great, tense sequences, which is a shame. This is not a tongue-in-cheek movie, although there are funny lines. It’s more of a supernatural thriller, with sometimes comic-book-hero action.

The Church is made to look like the powerful worldly entity it was back in the day, and there’s a fair amount of anti-religious barbs and jokes-at-the-expense-of-religion (which, of course, would have been very appropriate to the times, and no doubt, often well deserved). But Hollywood also recognizes the spiritual power wielded by the Church. However, the only hope to stop the darkness is “The Book of Solomon,” painstakingly copied by hand by monks. Oh dear: “Book of Solomon.” At first I thought—professional, informed Catholic that I am—“You mean the real book of the Bible: The Wisdom of Solomon? But how can you slay witches and demons with aphorisms?” I was so confused. Then I realized we were in quasi-fictional Dan Brown territory, because this Book of Solomon, although written and illuminated by monks, is “the book used by all the holy men through the ages” to overcome evil. Ooooh. This isn’t the Catholic brand, it’s generic. Leave it to a nun to spoil all the fun (by pointing this out).

A word about Nicholas Cage. In the first scene we see him in, we think “oh-oh.” He is sticking out like a sore thumb with his distinctly American-casual-diction and “I am Nicholas Cage” presence. My thoughts drifted to Kevin Costner in “Robin Hood.” The cast is mixed with Brits who can make ANYTHING sound like Shakespeare and make you utterly believe ANYTHING they say. I don’t know if Nic Cage can do period pieces. And I like the guy’s acting. I just think he needs really extreme characters with psychological-type quandaries.

Is “Witch” worth seeing? Yes. But I think things are at their spookiest without CGI! Why did the realistic-looking wolves (who were probably CGI themselves) suddenly need turbo-CGI faces? They became LESS scary! This is my beef with Stephen King, too. He sets up these amazing scenarios that get under your skin, and then he jumps to some outlandish, bad drug trip story-line that could definitely never happen in my living-room/house/town/life. And I can no longer relate, and I’m no longer frightened or interested.

Although in “Witch” much is made of chivalry and vows to God--the true nature of evil is never dealt with. The evil of sin that lives in our hearts. There are fleeting references to sin and penance, but actually with a sense of disbelief. In the new book “Light of the World,” Pope Benedict says: “We have to recover the understanding that it is really necessary to come to terms with evil. We cannot simply shove it aside or forget it. It has to be worked through and transformed from within.”

Hollywood gets evil half-right. But we will not be saved by a book. Not even the Book of Eli. We are saved by our relationship with God, the living Word of God.

It’s so much easier to draw a sword and decapitate demons than it is to wrestle the demons within. Interior battles are hard, lonely, unseen, unapplauded and unvalued in our completely external, Twitterized, publish-my-life world. But as Thomas More said in “Man for All Seasons”: God and your little circle around you will notice, “not a bad audience, that.” Want to really man-up? Take up your cross of a life of discipleship, spiritual discipline and self-sacrifice. Only love, truth, beauty and goodness will win the day.


--*I am tempted to a do a feminist read on the whole female witch thing, but I’ll spare you. Suffice it to reproduce a line of dialogue here: “The witch will turn men against each other.”

--“The greatest persecution of the Church comes not from her enemies without, but arises from sin within the Church.” –Pope Benedict XVI

--Another word to Hollywood about CGI: I hate things morphing into other things all the time. Cease and desist, you shape-shifters!

--Like I said, I don’t believe this movie was meant to be tongue in cheek, so I think it was a bad thing when Monty Python came to mind once or twice.

--“Witch” might even be a candidate for “Mystery Science Theater 3000” because I was reflexively thinking up awesome MST3K lines as we went along.

--Director Dominic Sena also did “Swordfish,” “Gone in 60 Seconds,” and “Kalifornia.”

--The real outdoor settings are spectacular with a mottled color palette of brown, blue, black and white.

--We could have done without the frequent “Happy Trails,” suspender-snapping, horseback reminiscences of the two knights. But Nicholas Cage looked like a good horseman.

--What was with those doctors with the bird beaks surrounding the dying Cardinal?? Looked occult.

--Great line when the merry band realizes the proportions of the evil they’re dealing with: “We’re gonna need more holy water.”

--Good switch from knights killing people to spiritual warfare.

--Some good advice from “Witch” about evil:

Don’t even talk to evil. It’s way smarter than you.

Turn to God and the Church.

Don’t sell relics.

“God will never abandon us.”

“We believe what we want to believe” to our own salvation or ruination.

Satan is the “accuser”—he’s always bringing up our sins before us (and not in a good way, to do something about them, but so that we’ll despair over them).

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