The Rite” fails both as a horror film and as a religious experience. But it didn’t have to happen that way. I read Matt Baglio book’s The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist  (2009), on which the new film is loosely based, and talked to priests in California who knew the Rev. Gary Thomas, the priest who inspired the book and who served as technical adviser for the film. They spoke well of him. But it doesn’t take much imagination to hear the film’s script writer saying, “Yes, Father, but we’ve got to jazz it up to pull them in.”
The central question, especially in a “religious” film, is: What is the director trying to say?
The classic horror films of the 1930s, based on good literature, usually carried a religious message as well. Both the original “Frankenstein” and the Claude Raines version  of H. G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man” took their theme from the biblical idea of human autonomy violating the Creator’s will. Just as Adam and Eve asserted their own ambition by disregarding God’s command to not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, scientists move into “God’s territory” and unwittingly create destructive monsters. As the Invisible Man mutters on his deathbed, “There are some things it’s best not to know.”
“The Wolf Man”  is a variation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: man as a divided creature, stuck with original sin, whose disposition toward violence is inherited by all of us as children of Cain; sometimes this buried other self gets the upper hand. In “Dracula”  Dr. Van Helsing is a medical doctor who will use the crucifix as a weapon against the vampire; both book and film combine science and religion.
The premise of exorcist films is that there are, in effect, two “gods” who battle for our souls: the ancient heresy was called Manichaeism. Its contemporary variations posit that the God who created us and loves us also permits a rival “god,” Satan, to possess us at will, take over our bodies and minds, and force us to scream obscenities, fly around the room, vomit toads and nails and spill the personal secrets of anyone who dares to oppose him. That’s not the God I know.
Yes, the New Testament recounts Jesus expelling demons from the sick; but in the cosmology of Jesus’ time demons were considered the source of all kinds of ailments. When Jesus rebukes the storm at sea he is addressing a “demon” in the storm. Yes, we have exorcists in the church today; but it is extremely rare that they encounter what even they consider a genuine case of possession.
A missionary with 40 years experience described to me routine “exorcisms” where he labored; but it was understood by the participants that the source of the woman’s problem—and they were overwhelmingly women—was not an indwelling spirit but a psychological wound caused by a family quarrel. Today many modern theologians consider Satan a symbol of the evil forces at work in the world. This does not make evil any less real; rather it more realistically emphasizes the individual and social responsibility for sin. To explain the source of evil in the world we need to look no farther that our own weakness desires.
In the book, Father Gary Thomas, from San Jose, California, wants to improve his pastoral skills so his bishop sends him to Rome to be trained in exorcism. Thomas had worked as an embalmer in his father’s funeral home, fallen off a cliff during a hike and endured a long recovery from his injuries, including depression. In Rome he enrolls in an exorcism course at a college run by the Legionnaires of Christ, the church’s most conservative and discredited order—though Thomas might not have known that at the time. He allows the journalist Matt Baglio to hang out and take notes for his book. Attached to a Franciscan exorcist who trains him, Thomas comes to believe in diabolical possession, to the point where he suspects that the devil is making inroads on him. The book The Rite also includes the scientific explanations for the symptoms attributed to diabolic possession, including schizophrenia, hysteria, bipolar disease, epilepsy, Tourette’s Syndrome and multiple personality disorder.
In the film (directed by Michael Halstrom) Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), son of an embalmer, goes to the seminary because he can’t afford college. He tries to pull out before ordination, but is persuaded by his dean to take some months in Rome in exorcism training to think things over. There Father Lukas (Anthony Hopkins), a Jesuit, takes him on as an exorcist’s apprentice.
But Michael is an independent thinker, challenges his Dominican professor in class with skeptical questions, and observes Lukas’s exorcisms thinking that more psychiatrists should have been consulted.
Perhaps the writers made Hopkins a Jesuit because Jesuits, with their 13-year training, have the reputation (deserved or not) for approaching complex issues more intellectually. But Lukas lives not with a Jesuit community but up a hill in a run-down, perpetually dark house, with a cluttered back yard, no shelves of books or apparent intellectual interests. In the film, Mike represents rationality with his questioning, while Lukas represents “faith”—to Mike, belief in what seems unbelievable.
Over time Mike witnesses a string of exorcisms, as if Lukas’ house is a doctor’s office with patients streaming in and out for a blessing or, if necessary, a wrestling, screaming and blessing session in order to “name” and expel the evil spirit. Mike and Lukas pin down and bless one young “possessed” pregnant woman bouncing off the wall and writhing around the floor. Mike wonders whether this violence has injured her unborn child. The next day she attempts suicide and she and the child die in childbirth. It does not occur to Lukas that exorcism was not the proper response to her condition.
But then Lukas himself becomes possessed, and it is up to our young hero, accompanied by Angeline (Alice Braga) a pretty young female journalist who is writing about his adventures, to yank his mentor from the devil’s grip. In the film’s climax, Anthony Hopkins, tied to a chair, spews insults, reveals the inner thoughts of Mike and Angeline, and contorts his face into its most ugly expressions, while Mike, holding his exorcist’s handbook in one hand and the crucifix in the other, does battle. Meanwhile, the soundtrack crackles with grunts and screams.
The film’s message is that one must first believe in Satan in order to believe in God. I don’t buy it. There are those who think exorcism movies—like William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” years ago —are pastorally helpful because they scare young people into going to church. That’s a religion based on superstition and fear. And is not a religion based on the God whom I know.