2011-02-12

"The Rite" Couldn't be more Wrong

In offline discussions we have heard comments both pro and con towards the new new Hollywood movie called "The Rite." Recently we asked readers to provide comments or reviews if they had seen the movie. Billy G submitted the following review on the movie. It is posted as his opinion and take on the movie, and other submissions are welcome.

"The Rite" Couldn't be more Wrong
Following a best-selling book by author Matt Baglio, Warner Bros. Entertainment has seemed it fit to create a film adaptation of The Rite, butchering the story, the theology, and the talents of the actors in the process.

**WARNING: SPOILERS**
My review may reveal plot elements which may give away the outcome of the film (though I feel the direction of the movie is hardly surprising).

I saw The Rite on the first of February, 2011, with a good friend of mine who happens to be a district manager for Carmike Cinemas. We were both excited at the prospect of being able to hang out and discuss the film afterward. I had read the book, but had heard some less-than-flattering reviews on the film, which prompted me to enter the film with feelings of desperation rather than anticipation. I had thought, prematurely, that I would use one word to describe the film: "revolting." Instead, I left the film with another word: "comical."

My friend and I agreed that the film had over-the-top acting, care of Anthony Hopkins, coupled with bad direction (Mikael Håfström), uncreative dialogue (Michael Petroni), and a disjointed plot. He was happy with the score of the film, whereas I believed the score to be dull, uncreative, and easily overlooked. The cinematography was inconsistent; the film had beautiful shots (which is hard not to achieve when shooting in Rome) in some segments, and absolutely tired and overdone shots in others.

In all, the movie, as a creative piece, has an amateur feel to it. The director/writer added a few "winks" to audience members who had read the book, but this hardly redeemed the film as a whole.

But you probably do not want to read my creative analysis of the film. You are, more likely, looking for my content analysis of his film.

Unfortunately, my criticism starts with the very beginning of the film. Perhaps thirty-seconds into the movie, we see a text that reads, "What follows is inspired by true events." The problem with this text is that it is a non-statement. Films, in general, have destroyed any credibility they have as documentary works. Rare is the instance you will find a film that accurately depicts reality. The Rite is no exception. To say, "[X] is based on a true story" incites audience members to take the story told at face-value, as though they were reporting on specific events and not trying to entertain an audience.

That being said, The Rite is based on true events just as much as James Cameron's Avatar is based on true events. What true events inspire James Cameron? Well, there does exist an American military, we do have computers, there are other planets, and the American military did once war with indigenous peoples of an inhabited land. Of course, the story of Avatar is pure fantasy, but who are we to say that the fantasy is not inspired by reality? In the same way, The Rite is fantasy.

To be sure, demonic possession is a reality and there do exist exorcists appointed by the Church to combat the devil. But, other than that, The Rite has no real credibility whatsoever.

Synopsis
The film follows Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue), a "seminarian/deacon" who is struggling with atheism. His mentor in seminary, Fr. Matthew (Toby Jones,) receives an email from Michael explaining this fact and encourages Michael to take a (three month) course on exorcism in Rome. The head of the program, Fr. Xavier (Ciarán Hinds) notices Michael's skepticism (and lack of respect) and sends him to Fr. Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), who is described as a "less-orthodox" priest.

Michael then follows Fr. Lucas in what can only be called an apprenticeship and begins participating in exorcisms. Through a series of events, the two encounter a demon who is "hopping" from possessed people into others, until he finds a new "home" in Fr. Lucas himself. Thus, to claim his title as an official exorcist, Michael must exorcise the demon from the man who taught him everything.

Comparison
The book follows Fr. Gary Thomas, who actually was a mortician before hearing the call to the priesthood. He did struggle with doubts over his faith (as we all do), and he was skeptical of possession. This is what made him such a good candidate for the program in Rome - which was actually four years after ordination, as opposed to a three-month stint while still in seminary. Exorcists must be skeptical of all cases of supposed possession.

Fr. Gary was not a skeptic in the sense that he did not believe in God, he was a skeptic in the sense that he did not necessarily believe in demonic possession. But he was not thrown out of class to be apprenticed to a priest; the course ended with priests being apprenticed to experienced exorcists. Fr. Gary was apprenticed to Fr. Carmine de Filippis, a priest who had performed over two thousand exorcisms in his time.

Fr. Gary participated in exorcisms, but never once challenged Fr. Carmine's credibility, nor did Fr. Gary have to exorcise a demon from Fr. Carmine.

Specific Criticisms
I will briefly outline the observations that led me to stop taking the movie seriously:

  • The director/writer shows an ignorance of seminary.

When the film opens, the protagonist, Michael Kovak, is torn over decisions for his future. Should he go to seminary school or should he become a full-time mortician? Unfortunately, this is treated as something trivial. Michael refers to seminary as "seminary school," a place he can go to receive a free education. His plan is to leave before he takes his final vows.

Of course, this has many problems. First, while most dioceses in the United States do pay for your tuition in seminary, seminary is incredibly difficult to get in to. Applicants must first express an interior call to the priesthood, then go through numerous meetings with the Vocations Director (and Vocations Board), fill out mountains of paperwork, and undergo numerous psychological evaluations. Few men (if any) will ever enter seminary with the idea that they are only there to get a free education.

  • The director/writer shows an ignorance of the deaconate.

In addition to the problems with their understanding of seminary, they completely misunderstand the deaconate. While the deaconate is included in the sacrament of Holy Orders, deacons do not have the authority to perform specific tasks that are due only to the priesthood of the Catholic Church. For instance, a deacon cannot, under any circumstances, perform the Anointing of the Sick, nor can the deacon Absolve one of sins (see canons 935; 1003). To be sure, the deacon can administer Viaticum (last Holy Communion) and say prayers for the dying.

Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, Michael Kovak, a deacon, is giving the Last Rites to a woman who was hit by a car. After this scene, I violently shook my head and laughed.

With the apex of the Internet, how difficult is it to clarify Church practice, especially when basing a script off of a factual book on the Catholic Church? What we have here, ladies and gentleman, is a case of lazy writers who refuse to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Further, Deacons cannot canonically perform exorcisms: "No one can perform exorcisms legitimately upon the possessed unless he has obtained special and express permission from the local ordinary" (c. 1172.1). "The local ordinary is to give this permission only to a presbyter (priest) who has piety, knowledge, prudence, and integrity of life" (c. 1172.2). Deacons (and lay people) can pray prayers of liberation and deliverance, but not the formal prayer of exorcism as outlined in the rite.

  • Toward the close of the film, Fr. Lucas comments, "I'm not in a state of grace, and when you're not in a state of grace you can't pray."

Here, we have a supposedly experienced priest and exorcist commenting on the nature of grace and prayer. Of course you can still pray while not in a state of (sanctifying) grace. God does not abandon us to death should we ever fall into a state of mortal sin! The Church calls God's actions on those removed from sanctifying grace "actual grace." God always tugs and pulls at our heart to come back to Him.

In fact, it is in a state of mortal sin that one should pray all the more fervently for God's mercy and forgiveness before seeking healing in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (something easily available to a priest in Rome).

  • "Contagious Possession"

Apparently possession is contagious in the world The Rite creates. By the conclusion of the film, the audience is led to believe that this particular demon has been following Michael Kovak since he was young. First, he possessed his mother, then his father, then a pregnant girl in Italy, and finally Fr. Lucas. All to get at Michael.

Now, if you read any book on possession and exorcism, you will find that this is simply not how demons operate. Demons are not contagious - they do not possess you simply because you happen to be in the vicinity of someone who is afflicted. Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist for the Vatican, in an interview with Gyles Brandreth says, "I believe God sometimes singles out certain souls for a special test of spiritual endurance, but more often people lay themselves open to possession by dabbling with black magic. Some are entrapped by a satanic cult. Others are the victims of a curse."

I believe the case of Rosalina, the pregnant Italian girl, is based on an actual case, though I cannot recall if I read about this case in The Rite or in another book by Fr. Amorth. Regardless of this fact, we cannot be led to believe that demons are contagious and that you will become possessed if you are involved in exorcisms. In fact, those participating in exorcisms are probably safest from possession. They are not safe from the devil's harm, but safe from possession, unless they open themselves up to it.

Conclusion
Because of the glaring theological flaws in the director/writer's understanding of seminary, the presbyterate, the sacraments, grace, possession, and exorcism, I was simply unable to take this movie seriously. I was never terrified, though there were some disturbing moments in the film.

I do believe that Catholics should exercise discretion in seeing this film, but I do not believe the film is necessarily dangerous (in fact, I think Paranormal Activity is far more dangerous than this film). If you are familiar with theology, particularly demonology, you will probably find the film laughable (I did).

I left the theater feeling conflicted. On the one hand, I felt sorry for the director/writer. They had such a great story to work with and create a truly informative, and at the same time, terrifying, film that depicted the reality of demonic possession. Instead, they chose to write a complete fantasy that had very little basis in reality.

On the other hand, I was glad that they wrote a fantasy. The film should educate Catholics on how the world views possession and exorcism. This gives us a much greater opportunity to learn about our own faith and to evangelize.

In all, I did find some gems in the film, but nothing of note. I was disappointed with the acting, the direction, and the general plot. If you have the time to waste, wait to get the movie on Red Box or Netflix. Do not pay full price to see it.

DO pay full price to buy the book and read it. You will not be disappointed.
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