The Rite

Posted on 09. Mar, 2011 by in Catholic Horror, Priests, The Vatican


Much like The Exorcist (Extended Director’s Cut & Original Theatrical Edition) [Blu-ray], The Rite is a fictionalized tale based upon a real priest, and a real exorcism case. The hero is a questioning young priest who has a large dose of skepticism, and what he believes to be a lack of faith and a dubious strength of vocation.

“The screenplay was written by Matt Baglio and Michael Petroni and was based on Baglio’s 2009 book, ‘The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist.’

As a part of researching exorcism for a book he had planned on the topic, Matt Baglio, who lives in Rome, went to a seminar on exorcism that was held by the Vatican at the Regina Apostolorum. As Baglio told Catholic Spotlight, ‘ At the time, I was raised Catholic but wasn’t really a practicing Catholic, and, as a journalist, I was just very curious about the course, the idea that a university level course could be taught to priests and nuns about exorcism and did the tricks to believe in that. I didn’t know anything about exorcism, and so I was very curious.’

When he met Father Gary Thomas, a priest from California who was also taking the course, Baglio began to see the story as bigger than a single article. Father Gary had been picked by a local bishop in San Jose California, to study and become a Vatican-sanctioned exorcist for the diocese. However, the young priest was skeptical and unsure of the whole concept.

Although “The Rite” movie changes the name of Gary Thomas to Michael Kovak and takes several other liberties with the truth of original story, the skepticism of the priest plays a key role in the film as well, which starts with following the priest’s story well before he was a priest or studying to be an exorcist.

What happened next is the basis for the movie. Father Gary Thomas became an apprentice to an exorcist who was based in a township just outside of Rome. He saw over twenty exorcisms by the experienced, Rome-based exorcist, who is played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie.”

From Robin Raven, “The True Story Behind The Rite”, Feb. 1, 2011.

In The Rite, Anthony Hopkins references The Exorcist when the bemused seminarian Kovaks witnesses his first exorcism and finds the whole thing to be rather less “Hollywood” than he’d thought it would be. “What did you expect?” Hopkins says as Father Lucas, “Spinning heads, pea soup? Tut, tut.”

The Rite seems to be an effort at presenting a more realistic and nuanced portrayal of exorcism than many other mainstream movies that deal with the topic. Anthony Hopkins is convincing as world-weary, shamanic Father Lucas. Moments where I involuntarily had the thought “it’s Hannibal in a cassock” were few and far between, though inevitable.

One of the exorcisms portrayed in the movie, paralleling an exorcism case in Baglio’s book, was a matter of multiple sessions of the priest praying and blessing the exorcee; in this sense, exorcism is a bit like electroshock therapy; some will be cured after a single course of treatment, some need regular maintenance treatments, and the “cure” may be illusory or evanescent. I once read of a case in America Bewitched: The Rise of Black Magic and Spiritism by Daniel Logan in which he described a woman whom he believed to have become possessed by a demon or other “negative entity” from engaging in automatic writing. However, when her decline took a turn into violent behavior, she came to the attention of the mental health system in the 1970s, rather than the Catholic Church. She was no longer possessed following a series of “painful electroshock treatments” but she faced the future “no longer what she once was” from the resulting brain damage. Strange as such a tale may sound, it jibes with Thomas Aquinas’ theory that angels and demons are “pure intellect” and therefore most likely electrical energy or dependent thereon.

Seminarian Kovak, though born into a practicing Catholic family, grew up in contemporary America, in a modern, skeptical age in which science supposedly has all the answers and secularism rules.
Though the funeral home his father wants him to continue working at to carry on the family business, and the circle of practicing Catholics he deals with both at work and through his family and church would seem to be overt influences, he did not spend all of his time in those two places. He has to some degree absorbed the values of the larger society in which he grew up, including the mainstream modern belief that the supernatural doesn’t really exist, and the (demonically) “possessed” are really the “mentally ill”.
To put the icing on the cake, the Catholic Church and its personnel in the USA have pervasive bad publicity, which is indirectly referred to in the movie. But declaring an intention to join the priesthood is the only way Kovak’s father will let him out of his future path of continuing to work at the family-owned funeral home.
When Kovak tells his high school buddy he is going to seminary, the other youth’s reaction is “Is this your way of telling me you’re gay?”

Four years later, when Kovak has nearly completed his degree on the Church’s dime, he lets it be known that he came to seminary for the wrong reasons, and he had no business becoming a priest because he didn’t have the faith that a priest should have.
In a ham-handed bit of foreshadowing, his academic advisor/Father Superior recited the baleful statistics about the modern-day decline in Catholic vocations and an aging clergy, and suggested another period of probation prior to the priesthood: taking the exorcism training,
The reason this idea was floated to such a seemingly unlikely candidate was because they knew that before entering seminary, Kovak had previously been a mortician, helping out in his father’s funeral home, (a profession he was now thoroughly sick of) and therefore was “not squeamish”, which would later prove to be an important quality in an exorcist.

In reference to Kovak’s own admission that he used the enrollment in seminary to run away from a future career as a mortician, his advisor/Father Superior says “You could have gone anywhere, yet you ran in this direction”, seeing divine intervention in Kovack’s having come to the seminary, even for the wrong reasons.


Kovak approaches the Vatican

Kovak approaches the Vatican in The Rite

When in Rome, Kovak spends the exorcism seminar and much of his time with Father Lucas saying that people whom the Church calls demonically possessed are really mentally ill and needed psychiatric help. However, Fr. Lucas’s position on the subject is that the prevailing modern belief (often to be found even in the contemporary Catholic Church) that a supernatural entity and personification of evil, the Devil, and similar, lower-ranking, but still harmful entities, do not truly exist, is one of The Devil’s largest scams on the human population so far: “Does a thief or a burglar turn on the lights while he’s robbing your house? No. He prefers you to believe that he’s not there… like the devil!”

The high-tech lecture hall in "The Rite", where the class for future exorcists is held.

The high-tech lecture hall in "The Rite", where the class for future exorcists is held.

The NY Daily News review “‘Rite’ is just wrong” unfairly labels The Rite as “terminally silly” and “cartoonish”. Don’t believe it. The reviewer is at least as simplistic as his analysis, and probably not Catholic, so there are certain things in this movie that he was unlikely to “get”.

The Daily News reviewer probably didn’t like the moment of comic relief when Father Lucas’s cell phone rings while he is in the middle of an exorcism. But I can feel confident in saying that scenario is more realistic than any number of other elements seen in portrayals of exorcisms in the movie.
My father, who never misses Mass, would laugh with the crowd, but would think the situation anything but silly. A priest he knew had his cell phone in his pocket and forgot to turn it off before putting on his vestments. It rang during Mass, much to the amusement and slight consternation of everyone who witnessed it. The Catholic Church, as knowledgeable as centuries of observation upon the human condition have made it, has not yet figured out how to deal with the contemporary phenomena of cellphone-toting priests and parishioners. A great deal of what the near future holds for the Catholic Church is uncertain, but one thing that is a certainty is that in our times, it will not be uncommon for important and solemn rituals of the Church to be interrupted by ringtones.

The Daily News’ reviewer looks down his nose on The Rite because during the course of the picture, the older, experienced priest becomes demonically possessed, and it is up to Kovak and his lacking faith to exorcise him. This scenario is not as unrealistic as one may think it is in genuine exorcisms. It is, in fact specified in the Rituale Romanum that an exorcist should have at least one other priest or acolyte on the scene who can effectively serve as a stand-in should the first exorcist be possessed or killed.

“The exorcist rarely works by himself. He is usually assisted by at least three other people. The first is generally a younger priest who is being trained or is trained in the performance of exorcism. His main duty is to maintain the continuance of the exorcism, and can take over if the exorcist dies.
The second person is usually a medical physician. He helps the exorcist with the victim. The exorcist is to continue to question the victim during which he attempts to discover the name and nature of the demon or spirit within. Under no circumstance is the exorcist to give the victim any medications. If this is required, this is the duty of the physician.
This person is usually physically strong and a member of the victim’s family. If the victim is a female, then this third person should be a woman to avoid scandal.” (the equivalent of having a nurse present at medical procedures.)
from “The Rituale Romanum” on The Mystica.com
Another reason the Daily News reviewer reacts with scorn is that because in the experience of directly encountering a major demon in this way, Kovak finds the faith he had been missing, and accepts a future as a priest.
In a reversal of the logical sequence of belief in God leading to other beliefs of the church, including that of the church’s concept of the Devil, Kovak, at last convinced of the actual existence of a spiritual entity responsible for evil and able to take over human bodies, expels the possessing entity from Father Lucas when he declares that because he now believes in the Devil, he therefore believes in God.

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