St. Michael, Pray for Us Print
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 31 January 2011

I was visiting a seminary just after Christmas in 1973 and, with time on my hands, one afternoon decided to head to a nearby multiplex to see the just-released movie version of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel, The Exorcist.

Whatever else you may say about William Friedkin’s film version, it was effective – and not just the film itself but also its pre-release marketing, so much so that when showtime came and the lights went down, people in the crowded theater screamed with fright. Blatty’s novel was based upon an actual exorcism conducted by Father William S. Bowdern, S.J. in Missouri in 1949.

The Rite, the new movie starring Sir Anthony Hopkins, takes its title from Matt Baglio’s non-fiction book of the same name. The film claims to be “inspired by true events;” in fact it’s pure fiction, start to finish, and owes more to Mr. Blatty than to Mr. Baglio. (In the opening credits of director Mikael Håfström’s film we read: “Suggested by the book by Matt Baglio;” not “based upon,” which is the usual locution, merely suggested by.)

Mr. Baglio befriended Fr. Gary Thomas, a Californian who, before exorcism education in Rome, knew next to nothing about demons or the rite to cast them out. Baglio shadowed Thomas, attending training sessions and actual exorcisms, and together they both experienced a deepening of faith and an appreciation of the differences between common psychological disorders and the rare cases of actual demonic possession.

In the book, Fr. Thomas’ Italian mentor, Fr. Giancarlo Gramolazzo, explains that an exorcist is more spiritual director than angelic warrior, and Fr. Thomas recently told the Guardian newspaper that he has performed about forty exorcisms on just five people in the last five years and emphasized that “the victories are small in number, and it takes a lot of time. It’s very arduous work.”

Anthony Hopkins as an exorcist in The Rite

The movie, of course, wants nothing of such hard-nosed, balanced appraisals of exorcism. Fr. Thomas is replaced in the movie by a character called Fr. Michael Kovak, played by hunky Irish newcomer Colin O’Donoghue, and Matt Baglio is transformed into the lovely journalist Angeline Santos (Alice Braga), who mostly provides exposition, and Fr. Gramolazzo becomes Fr. Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), who, Angeline tells Fr. Kovak, has performed a thousand exorcisms and to whom the younger priest is sent for practicum.

The first exorcism shown in the movie is actually gripping and reasonably credible, until the young possessed woman begins spitting up railroad spikes. Early reviews of the movie, which opened on Friday, have accused Anthony Hopkins of scenery chewing, but that’s unfair. Yes, there are echoes towards film’s end of his Oscar™-winning performance as serial flesh-eater Hannibal Lecter, but most of what puts the performance over the top are the hammy special effects – the facial changes and bodily contortions, added in after filming – that have nothing to do with Hopkins’ acting.

Now in his early seventies, Anthony Hopkins still commands the screen with a physical presence that’s equal parts spiritual stillness, nervous energy, and menacing muscularity. They say screen acting is all about the eyes, and Hopkins’ pale blues can radiate malice in one moment and compassion in another but always show intelligence, even genius, which makes him worth watching even if he’s reciting gibberish.

Indeed, The Rite isn’t nearly as bad as you may have read. Then again, it’s not nearly as good as it should have been.

At the start of The Rite, there seem to be two dangerous and other-worldly forces in play: demonic evil . . . and Catholicism. The Church has become one of Hollywood’s enduring villains, and, thanks to intimations of anti-Catholicism, after about fifteen minutes I was half-tempted to walk out of the movie. And when young Fr. Kovak finally finds his faith – at the climax, by rule near the end – it’s mostly because he has sure as hell come to believe in Satan.

When he calls out a well-known demon in the name of Jesus Christ, it’s as though a vacuum at the heart of modern movie making has been unsealed. At the same time, you couldn’t call The Rite a Catholic or even a religious film in any proper sense. The movie fails to make the rite of exorcism anything more than a plot device, no different than the Ghostbusters’ Neutrino Wand that zaps out demons and stores them in a Proton Pack.

That’s sad, because as Fr. Lucas tells Fr. Kovak: “Choosing not to believe in the devil won’t protect you from him.” 

Just last year, the Vatican’s chief exorcist, 85-year-old Father Gabriele Amorth, declared that the Anti-Christ is waging war within the Holy See: “The Devil resides in the Vatican,” he told the Repubblica newspaper, “and you can see the consequences.” He should know: he claims to have performed seventy-thousand exorcisms. That may seem, well, extravagant, but recall too John Paul II’s warning (which appears on screen at the start of “The Rite”): “The battle against the Devil, which is the principal task of Saint Michael the Archangel, is still being fought today, because the Devil is still alive and active in the world,”

Brad Miner, a former literary editor of National Review, is senior editor of The Catholic Thing.
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