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 clichés 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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  1. Thank you sister for your review. I thought the previews seemed too sensational so I wasn't going to watch the film but after reading your review I think I might just go ahead and watch it anyway.

  2. The trailer is way more scary, intense and suspenseful than the movie! It MADE me want to see the movie! (Along with the good dialogue bits.)

  3. Anonymous5:16 PM

    Read the transcript of the exorcism in 1928 titled "Warnings From Beyond"

    Then see the movie.

  4. Notes from another Catholic geek:
    1) Ordained might have been too much for a secular audience to understand; the word vow is used often as a alternative to committment.
    2)The 'priest' was certainly on the path maybe it was used more in sarcasm than the reality?
    3)Maybe a priest would be sent there to learn not necessarily to become an exorcist, but more like being sent to a monastery as a learning experience?
    4)You have to give the screenwriters some leeway when writing a script its a tiring time and things can slip through the cracks or get added because it looked good on paper and afterall they wanted to finish the darn movie! :-)
    ps will pass this on to others that weren't sure if this was a good movie to see or not!

  5. Actual exorcism accounts and transcripts which would greatly behoove Catholics to read:

    http://www.ewtn.com/library/NEWAGE/BEGONESA.htm (Iowa)

    http://www.tldm.org/news4/WarningsFromBeyond.1of3.htm (Switzerland)

    As to this movie, Sister (hi, sister!) wrote about it:

    "Is this a film about faith? Yes, but not just religious/theological faith. It’s also about human faith in our fellows, in ourselves, and in where “life” leads us."

    Sister, what you describe is the pablum of gnosticism and humanism: that's what hollywood considers faith, even when it (hollywood) makes its best attempt, e.g. this movie, at pondering True faith, which is sinful man can achieve nothing through faith in self, in fellow sinners, in "fate"/"life"; sinful man is rescued, without merit, by the grace of the Trinity.

  6. Dear Tap,
    Thanks for these insights! Yeah, maybe it was sarcasm. The devil's good at that. ha ha.
    The movie makes it clear he's being sent to learn to be an exorcist (partly because he was a mortician and isn't "squeamish," ha ha).
    I've written screenplays, too, and it ain't easy!!! And sometimes you just want to use some "just go with it" device and hope people don't notice/call you out too strongly on it!

  7. Dear Sr. Burns,
    Thanks for this positive review. I was cautiously optimistic that it would not take the typical 'Hollywood' approach to Excorcisms (split-pea soup variety).

    I read 'Hostage to the devil' by Fr. Malachi Martin (RIP) early in my Catholic conversion 12 years ago and it was an eye-opening experience.

    God Bless,

  8. Dear Craig, Fr. Lucas even asks the seminarian: what were you expecting, pea soup? ha ha ha

  9. Sister I really enjoyed this review. Thank you for your insights into demonic possession. Hopefully atheists will read this. It is an eye opener. Sadly there is a tendency among some teenagers to dabble in the occult. Unfortunately they just see it as fun. The OTHER STUFF in the post is also particularly interesting. Sadly too many people doubt the existence of the devil with predictable consequences.