Hollywood keeps dumbing-down the demonic

  • February 9, 2011
“What were you expecting?” the veteran demon-fighter Fr. Lucas (Anthony Hopkins) asks his young apprentice Michael (Colin O’Donoghue) after an uneventful exorcism in The Rite, now playing in movie theatres across southern Ontario. “Spinning heads? Pea soup?”

At those lines, you could almost feel a satisfied smile go around the audience. The vivid allusion, everybody knew, was to The Exorcist (1973), Hollywood’s first and best attempt to do a film about Catholics casting out devils. It was director Mikael Håfström’s heavy-handed way to remind movie-goers of what was already, by that point, perfectly obvious: that The Rite is meant to be a serious contribution to that horror sub-genre, the demon movie, created by The Exorcist almost 40 years ago.

It isn’t, but certainly not for lack of trying.

The movie tells the tale of an American seminarian and deacon Michael Kovak (underwhelmingly played by O’Donoghue) who has done priestly studies mainly as a way to get a free education and escape from a career in the family funeral business. Michael doesn’t believe anything. Maybe I don’t know enough about seminaries these days, but I do find it improbable that a young man who is such a phoney could get as far along toward priesthood as the diaconate.

Be that as it may, and despite the fact that he doesn’t know whether God or Satan exist, Michael is packed off to Rome for a Vatican-sponsored course in exorcism. He starts the course, led by a Dominican named Fr. Xavier (the superb Irish actor Ciaran Hinds), but soon is letting everyone around him know he thinks the whole God-thing may be a sham.

Instead of wondering whether Michael is suitable material for an exorcist — something I would find perfectly reasonable — Fr. Xavier indulgently sends him away to learn from Fr. Lucas, a charmingly eccentric old priest whom the Dominican thinks is “unconventional,” but “effective” at casting out evil spirits.

The first victim of demonic possession Michael encounters is a pregnant teenager named Rosaria (Marta Gastini). At first, Rosaria seems to be just another troubled teen. But when she is touched by sacred objects and addressed in the words of the rite of exorcism, the demon within stirs her to amazing speech and deeds that Michael, in his doubt, cannot understand. He is accordingly moved toward faith by this manifestation of pure evil.

Another Catholic reviewer of this movie has found Michael’s resulting turn back to God “intriguing.” I find it cinematically wrong and spiritually wrong-headed. If the experience of evil and its dire effects on the human condition were enough to convert unbelievers, then everyone in this violent, sin-sick world would be saved. The appearing of sin in human life — the ruin it causes, the havoc it wreaks — is more often dispiriting and discouraging than conducive to repentance in those who behold it. In any case, Michael doesn’t repent; he merely gets a little scared and superstitious.

He does get a big challenge, however, when Fr. Lucas is possessed by a demon, and Michael, though only a deacon, dons a stole and recites the rite of exorcism over his mentor’s tortured body. (Several glaring mistakes of this kind betray the director’s unsure grasp of Catholic faith and practice.)

The big scene of Fr. Lucas’ exorcism gives Hopkins the chance to chew the scenery brilliantly. And, true enough, there are few cheap tricks here — no spinning heads, no pea soup. But considerable restraint on the special-effects front and even Hopkins’ redoubtable star power can’t rescue this film from its essential failure to convince, either artistically or religiously.

Håfström has worked dreadfully hard to make it convincing on both counts. He opens the film with a quotation from Pope John Paul II and ends it by telling us that the real-life exorcists on whose deeds The Rite is based are alive and well, casting out demons in Italy and the United States.

These gestures toward seriousness do not, however, add gravitas to the goings-on in the film itself. In fact, their addition only shows, by way of contrast, The Rite for what it is: merely another shocker aimed at an audience that, since 1973, has shown it can’t get enough of the demonic.

Or at least the demonic as dumbed-down into a form of popular entertainment. Demons are real, and so is demon possession. And the rite of exorcism, as practised by trained Roman Catholic priests, is profound medicine for this terrible, life-destroying reality, which is infinitely more subtle and insidious than spinning heads, pea soup and all the computer-generated imagery The Rite and its ilk can suggest. When it comes to spirituality, Hollywood just never gets it right.

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