THE RITE

4 Stars – Profound

Doubts about the existence of an evil that has a personal existence is easier when there is no “supernatural” proof of his existence.  But what does one do when the supernatural knowledge and destructive power of a demon inhabiting a person is personally experienced?  How does one hold onto such doubts?  Does one insulate the experience with hypotheses of mental illness, internalized abuse, projected fantasies?  And if there is such a thing as a mental illness that presents symptoms of hearing voices within the mind, then does that mean that all voices are the result of a psychotic break?  If one allows that there may be demon possession and mental illness, then how does a priest, psychiatrist or pastor tell the difference?  This fascinating area of human existence is the theme of Mikael Hafstrom’s mystery “The Rite.”
 
True to Christian teachings on the historic understanding of the devil, this film weaves together a journey from doubt to faith of Michael Novak (Colin O’Donoghue).  A troubled son of an eerie mortician, he flees from the family profession into the priesthood.  Graduating from seminary and deciding he does not have sufficient faith to be a priest, he informs his advisor of his decision.  Instead of releasing him, Fr. Matthew (Toby Jones), informs him that the Vatican has called for every diocese in America to have an exorcist and is offering classes to prepare a select group of priests for that ministry.  Somewhat blackmailed by the fact that he may have to pay for his seminary education if he does not enter the priesthood and somewhat fascinated by the supernatural due to some early experiences working with his father on the dead bodies in the mortuary, Michael finds himself in Rome.
 
Based on true accounts, but a fictionalized version of the tale, Michael is named after the Archangel Michael whose task is to wage war with the devil.  In Rome he is introduced to Fr. Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), also appropriately named since he shares the profession of a medical doctor with the writer of the third Gospel of the New Testament.  But what Fr. Lucas of Rome also practices is the Rite of Exorcism. It is this apprenticeship that becomes the focus of the tale.
 
We won’t spoil the suspense except to make some observations.  Unlike “The Exorcist,” this film is as much about doubt and faith, trust and obedience, God’s calling and empowerment, as it is about the devil and his possessions.  The honesty with which Fr. Lucas shares his life both with Michael and his patients is not only overwhelming but risky.  He warns Michael of the dangers of addressing demonic forces directly while he himself does so regularly. 
 
But it is the conversations about faith and belief that makes this film a profound journey into Christian faith.  So often faith is seen as a simple matter of proof.   But proof requires a limitation of evil to the material world and its methods of analysis.  Reality is far greater than such limitations and evil as well as good is far greater than this world.
 
Although not as graphic as it could have been, The Rite is not for the squeamish but for the thoughtful adult.  This is not an uplifting film on faith, but it raises some profound questions - more questions than it answers, but it answers some ultimate ones if the viewer has the ears to hear.
 
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
 
1. Do you “believe” there is a devil?  Why or why not?  On what basis have you made your decision?
 
2. The relationship that Michael has with Angeline (Alice Braga) is a personification of the guardian angel Michael’s mother gave him.  Do you believe Angeline was a part of God’s plan to bring Michael to faith or was she on her own journey?  
 
3. The implication that Rosaria (Marta Gastini) became possessed when her father impregnated her means it was not her decision.  Do you believe a father could cause his daughter to be demon-possessed?

Posted on November 4, 2013 and filed under 4 STARS, PROFOUND.