“The Rite” (A Nickell-odeon Review)

February 2, 2011

Just what we needed: another Hollywood movie about demon possession and exorcism. The Rite (2011) is yet one more of those based-on-a-true-story movies that really isn’t. (For example, nothing remotely like the head-spinning, pea-soup regurgitating effects of The Exorcist [1973]—actually acknowledged in an aside in The Rite —ever happened in the real case that inspired that movie. See my The Mystery Chronicles , 2004, 14-27.)

The Rite is ostensibly based on the book of the same title, by Matt Baglio. Subtitled The Making of a Modern Exorcist (2010), the book tells the story of one Father Gary Thomas. Raised in a blue-collar San Francisco Catholic family, he always wanted to be a priest. (As a boy Thomas played at saying Mass in the kitchen, draping the table with a white towel, arranging candles, and using a cookie cutter to make the Eucharistic hosts from Wonder Bread; his little brother was altar boy.) At fourteen, Thomas began to work part-time at a funeral home, and after graduating from USF he completed mortuary school. Before long, he had entered the seminary and, during his third year, asked to work in the “death ward” of a hospital He was ordained in 1983.

Just over twenty years later, in 2004, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent each Catholic diocese worldwide a letter requesting that the bishop appoint an exorcist to work officially. And when, the following year, a Vatican-affiliated university began to offer a course, “Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation,” the Reverend Thomas set out for Rome, nominated as an exorcist at his request.

Warner Brothers Pictures retells the story here with its film “inspired” by Baglio’s non-fiction book. However, the movie fictionalizes everything and gives short shrift to the book’s discussion of scientific explanations for “demon possession”—namely, various neurological conditions such as epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, and certain types of migraine, as well as psychological conditions, including psychoses like schizophrenia. (Baglio actually cites the late skeptical psychologist Barry L. Beyerstein, whose entry on “Possession and Exorcism” can be found in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal , edited by Gordon Stein, 1996, 544-552.) Needless to say, perhaps, the book’s primary input is as a springboard into supernatural fantasy.

Indeed, the movie relies heavily on Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the demon-hunting, then demon-haunted Father Lucas, as evil forces Lucas is fighting begin to possess him. Hopkins gives just the sort of performance we would expect from one who has himself previously been possessed—in a method-acting sort of way—by evil characters like Hannibal Lecter (in The Silence of the Lambs , 1991).

Father Lucas is saved in the nick of time by Michael Novak (Colin O’Donoghue), a priest loosely based on the book’s American exorcist—except much younger and ever more skeptical. However, Hollywood is forever abusing skeptics by putting them in movies for the purpose of converting them (as I can attest happened to the central character in The Reaping , 2007, played by Hilary Swank and inspired by my work as a miracle investigator). This movie is no exception, and skepticism is vanquished when scientific naturalism is trumped by demons from the medieval-minded, supernatural-believing world of Catholicism. And that’s what’s really scary about this otherwise unsuccessful movie. Consider the contagious ignorance and superstition, spewed like pea soup, over credulous moviegoers.

Rating: two wooden nickels (out of four)

Two Nickels