The buzz is starting to build for “The Rite,” a new contribution to the exorcism film genre, which stars Anthony Hopkins and opens at a theatre near you on January 28. The film is loosely based on Matt Baglio’s 2009 book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, a factual work that profiled Father Gary Thomas, an American priest who travels to Rome in order to study the Church’s rite of exorcism in a newly formed “school for exorcists.” Exorcism and the devil have long fascinated Hollywood. From the 1970s box office smash “The Exorcist” to more recent commercial successes such as “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” moviegoers have made it clear that portrayals of demonic possession make for gripping cinema. But do these films capture accurately the rare, yet all too real, phenomenon of exorcism?
A recent CNS article examined that question in a piece detailing the burgeoning public interest in the devil and possession. The article featured an interview with Fr. John Horgan, a leading scholar on exorcisms who served as a consultant to the 2005 movie "The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Horgan warned that Hollywood depictions of exorcisms are oftentimes over the top interpretations. He cautioned that "being chained and tied up has nothing to do with the Catholic rite of exorcism. Ours is very sober, reverent.”
Judging from trailers for “The Rite,” fans of horror films are unlikely to be disappointed. In an appearance on “Live with Regis and Kelly,” Anthony Hopkins said the film was scarier than “Silence of the Lambs," the hair-raising 1991 Oscar-winner in which Hopkins delivered an unnerving but virtuoso performance as the serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter. "It's a really scary movie," Hopkins said. "It's not a gory movie, but it's psychologically more scary than ‘Silence of the Lambs.’"
In “The Rite,” Hopkins plays Fr. Lukas, an unconventional priest and exorcist who takes on a skeptical seminary student to serve as his apprentice. Viewers intrigued by the film’s subject matter may want to ignore any Hollywood excesses. Still, there are already voices praising the film’s depiction of the priesthood and the faith.
Father Gary Thomas, who inspired the apprentice character in the film and who served as an on-set adviser during the film’s production, told Catholic News Agency that “The Rite” is a witness to the power of faith. “The human side of the priesthood is very well developed,” he said, adding that the portrayal of “the institutional Church comes out very positively.”
Over the next few weeks millions of movie-goers will flock to see “The Rite.” While exorcism films may not be ideal sources for evangelization, who’s to deny the potential for God to work in the heart of an individual, even through a psychological thriller. Look no further than Matt Baglio himself. Before setting out to work on “The Rite,” Baglio was a self-described fallen-away Catholic. However, delving into the history and theology of demonic possession actually served to rekindle his faith. In an interview with Salt and Light TV in 2009, he recounted his experience:
I think for me this experience was edifying and helped me to restore my faith. Not so much because I was thinking about demons, but because I was able to meet some incredible people such a Gary. Also getting into the theology and finding the roots of exorcism and reading some of the great minds that were in the church. It was absolutely a very edifying and moving experience to reconnect to that side of the church.
In his classic work “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis makes an interesting observation about the devil. He wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devil. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” Films like “The Rite”, inasmuch as they remind us of the reality of evil, can play a role in reinforcing our knowledge of Satan and all his works. However, an obsession with the cartoonish violence and gross exaggerations that have become part and parcel of exorcism films should be a warning that one has violated C.S. Lewis’s wise counsel.
- David Naglieri