The Rite movie about demonic possession
by Phil Boatwright

“Choosing not to believe in the Devil won’t protect you from him.” - Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins)

The Warner Bros release The Rite is a spine-tingling chiller about demonic possession. So, should we be going to such a film? Read the content below before deciding, but here is why I don’t think we should simply write this one off as a mere Hollywood horror fest. First off, as with The Exorcism of Emily Rose, I found myself praying after the screening: praying for protection and a closer walk with our Savior. Added to that, I lifted up unbelievers who had just seen the movie. In other words, it was a film that reminded me that there is a demonic force at work in the world and the one thing Satan doesn’t want is for anybody to be talking about it.

The Rite is inspired by true events, and according to Father Gary Thomas, a Catholic priest and exorcist the film is loosely based on, he found the movie not only entertaining, but also “emotionally charging,” and the portrayed exorcisms, though laced with Hollywood sensationalism, “authentic.”

The story concerns seminary student Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue in his feature film début), who is sent to study exorcism at the Vatican in spite of his own doubts. Skeptical of God, the devil and things that go bump in the night, Michael is sent to apprentice with Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), an unorthodox priest who has performed thousands of exorcisms. But after experiencing an intense ceremony wherein the victim thrashes about and contorts as if defying physics, Michael begins to fear that these monstrous events are not mere mental illness.  The young priest soon realizes that there truly is evil and begins to reason that if evil is indeed manifested in the being of the Devil, then there must also be a God. Michael will need his new-found faith to defeat Satan and save Father Lucas, who has fallen under the spell of this demonic phenomenon.

The story of The Rite began as a book proposal by Matt Baglio, a reporter living in Rome, who was struck by the Vatican’s 2007 announcement of its initiative to reinstruct the clergy on the rite of exorcism, with the goal of installing an exorcist in every diocese worldwide. Producer Beau Flynn relates, “Matt heard about an exorcism school that was opening in the Vatican and became fascinated by that concept.  And in the course of his investigation, he met an American priest who was undergoing this training.  So, rather than an article, Matt decided to write a book.”

The Rite does contain frightening sequences and jolting surprises accompanied by music blasts and scary CGI effects.  But, with smart dialogue, spooky imagery, and meticulous performances, director Mikael Hafstrom (1408) fashions a thriller/chiller that makes you think.  And while those most comfortable with the exorcism movie genre are probably attending more for the frights than the ecclesiastical theorems, I’m believing that many a discussion about the supernatural and spiritual matters will take place on the way home from the movie theater.

Mr. Hafstrom’s film may come under fire from Protestants because of the Catholic slant. There are Protestant clergy who address exorcism with the same devotion as members of the Catholic priesthood, yet when this theme is addressed in movies, it’s mostly from a Catholic perspective. Some denominational questions will no doubt arise, including the unlikelihood of a follower of Christ becoming possessed by demonic powers. In this film, the elderly priest suddenly comes down with a case of possession much the way a doctor catches a cold from a sick patient.

A couple of years ago I asked Scott Derrickson, director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, about the possibility of a Believer becoming demonically possessed. A graduate of Biola University with degrees in humanities and communications and a minor in theological studies, Derrickson thoughtfully addressed the question.

Derrickson: “I personally do not believe that a spirit-filled Christian can be demon possessed. However, for every one of those theological rules that we systematically create, there are often exceptions. I don’t believe that God will tell me to go create a sin. But He told Abraham to murder his son. In other words, I think there can be exceptions to the rule. But I tried to construct the screenplay in a way where that didn’t become the central question. It’s too hard of a question to answer in a movie.”

Father Gary was also meditative about the subject at a recent press interview.

Father Gary: “The movie doesn’t really bring out whatever opening may have led to possession in Father Lucas. I thought about that while I was watching the movie.  But you have to remember that it’s Hollywood, too…. I’ve never personally known anyone who that has happened to, but I will say that in Rome, the priest I worked under encountered someone who he could not figure out how that person had become possessed.  He had a prayer life, the whole bit, yet it happened to him.  So, I can’t say that it is impossible.  I can say, it doesn’t happen often.  But demons do attack anybody who comes at them. Demons know our weak points.”

Some will see it as thought-provoking; others as mere entertainment, but perhaps by seeing this film, we Christians will be reminded to put on the full armor of God.  And despite the controversies that will inevitably set off theological debates, I’m generally positive about a film that causes me to pray as soon as I exit the theater. I suspect that The Rite will be the most thought-provoking thriller you’ll see this year.

Content: Rated PG-13 (a couple of crude sexual innuendoes and comments at a bar; later, a demon’s voice hurls sexual remarks from the victim; I caught two obscenities; Christ’s name was profaned in one scene; the shots of a demon contorting the victims’ bodies is extremely violent and at times gruesome; no sexual activity, just a couple of comments of a sexual nature made at a bar and a demon speaks sexual vulgarities through its victim; make no mistake, this film is not for children or those easily disturbed by visual representations of demonic activity).

“The interesting thing about skeptics is that we’re always looking for proof. The question is what on Earth would we do if we found out.”  Father Lucas