The Rite
 
This film is “based on true events,” but, of course, there are many who are skeptical of exorcism stories, even many sincere Christians.  Among mature believers, there are those who think the whole demon possession scenario to be superstitious nonsense, a vestige of an earlier age, when the ignorant populace attributed to “possession” legitimate diseases which they didn’t understand, like paranoid schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, or for whatever reason, psychotic delusional episodes.
The response of the “enlightened,” then, to a modern request for exorcism would be, “They really need to see a psychiatrist instead.”  Of course, the irony of the faith is that belief in things unseen could just as easily encompass both the Lord and “the principalities of the air,” equally unseen.  While faith in the former does not necessarily produce faith in the latter, is it possible to believe in the latter without being sure of the former?  Or is the steadfast lack of faith in either itself the lazy way to accept other’s rationalizations for the unexplainable?
            Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) grows up in a mortician’s house, the only son of a widowed father, learning his father’s macabre trade, but without any real sense of calling to it.  And so he enrolls in the only place he can think of to escape:  the seminary, where he also lacks a sense of calling.  After four years, he has a theological education, all right, and can go through the motions of sacred ritual, but it means nothing to him.  So he decides, logically, not to follow through with his ordination to the priesthood.
            Not so fast, says the head priest.  You’ve accumulated $100,000 worth of free education, which you can’t just walk away from, so we’ll require you this one last assignment:  go to the Vatican , to study the ancient rite of exorcism in Rome .
            What’s a good Irish Catholic boy to do?  He dutifully enrolls in the course, and is immediately challenging the professor (along with a female student whom he assumes to be a nun).  The professor, sensing the skeptical spirit in “Father” Michael, sends him on an informal internship, under the “unorthodox” priest Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins).  Father Trevant alternates between kindly, doddering, absent-minded, retired cleric, and powerful, energetic, dynamic practitioner of ancient exorcism rituals.  With a loud, insistent, voice, he converses with “el Diablo” within:  demanding his name, demanding that he leave, touching the poor child (it is usually someone small and helpless) with a crucifix, or anointing with oil, or sprinkling with holy water, even reciting Latin prayers (while conversing with the “caregiver” in passable Italian).  These dramatic episodes are witnessed by our worldly, skeptical apprentice as a kind of sham artistry, until, of course, someone in the throes of possession tells him things about his own past that couldn’t possibly be known.  Or could they?
            As viewers, we experience lots of skin-tingling moments, but we are left to decide for ourselves how genuine any of this might be.  Kovak tries desperately to be “normal” alongside the bizarre and the inexplicable, and enlists his faux-nun friend, Angeline (Alice Braga), actually a journalist, to help him figure out just what is going on here.  For his part, spooky old Father Trevant also gets so close to his subjects that he seems to have become infected with the same malady;  something about his own sins catching up to him; as if his blanket absolution of Kovak was efficacious, but not his own repentance.
            Few actors other than Anthony Hopkins could deliver a role that seems so creepy and genuine and mercurial and distasteful and endearing, all at the same time.  The amazing part is that the power of “The Name” is taken absolutely seriously, as is, of course, the reality of The Tempter who always opposes, confuses, disturbs, obfuscates, unsettles, and terrifies.  This movie is not for the faint of spirit.
 
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas