The Devil and the related phenomenon of demonic possession, have been the source of several horror films for the years. Previous decades offered THE EXORCIST (1973), with its Roman Catholic perspective, and the various films that made up Protestant responses to it in THE OMEN (1976) and its sequels. Moving forward into more recent cinematic history, we have seen THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), and a dual release of diabolical films in 2010: DEVIL and THE LAST EXORCISM. Our fascination with the ultimate supernatural villain continues in 2011 with the recent release of THE RITE, which returns the horror treatment of Satan and demonic possession to the Catholic roots of THE EXORCIST. As a result of our present social and cultural circumstances, which echo much of the turbulence of the 1970s, we may be calling on Satan to help us deal with our current angst. As we will see, paradoxically, he may also provide some with faith in God.
THE RITE tells the story of a young American, Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), who has decided to leave the family business of running a mortuary with his father (Rutger Hauer) in favor of entering Roman Catholic seminary. As he explains his decision to a friend, the Kovaks do only two things, undertaking or the priesthood; with his increasing dissatisfaction with the former, it is time for Michael to explore the possibilities of the latter. Kovak completes his program of study, but just before taking his ordination vows, he submits his resignation because he lacks the faith that underlies the work of the priesthood and the church. One of his professors, Father Matthew (Toby Jones), sees potential in Kovak and, instead of accepting Michael’s resignation, sends him to a school in Rome that trains priests in the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism. It is here, Father Matthew argues, that Kovak may find the faith that he needs to become a priest.
After beginning exorcism studies, Kovak is assigned to work with Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), a priest whose many years of experience include thousands of exorcisms. Father Trevant is aware of Kovak’s struggle with faith, a struggle that Trevant himself has experienced from time to time in the past. Trevant immediately enlists Kovak’s help in assisting with exorcisms; the first involves the alleged possession of a pregnant teenage girl. After watching Trevant interact with the teenager, Kovak’s skepticism remains. He believes that her strange behavior can be accounted for by deep psychological problems, and that what she really needs is a psychiatrist. But after his experiences with Father Trevant, the allegedly possessed girl, and another case of possession, Kovak’s skepticism becomes more difficult to maintain. Eventually, he experiences strange phenomena, has deeply troubling and surreal dreams, and begins to wonder whether there may be some truth to the possibility of possession. As the film reaches its climax, Father Trevant and Kovak both have their faith tested, on the one hand, and given an opportunity for confirmation on the other, thanks to the presumed presence of evil supernatural entities.
Before addressing what I believe is the major thrust of THE RITE, I would like to make a few minor observations. At one point in the film, as Kovak begins his exorcism studies in Rome, he has a spirited exchange with the priest teaching the course, and Kovak notes that while the church accepts the veracity of demonic possession without hesitation, if someone reports a UFO sighting and alien abduction, the claim is immediately suspect. For Kovak, both claims are just as unlikely, so why should a strange claim in a mainstream religious tradition be privileged over a paranormal claim in what is often considered part of the cultural and religious fringe. Here THE RITE stumbles upon not only a question that can be found in any number of skeptical publications, but also an often unacknowledged issue in popular expressions and the academic study of religion. Phenomena like demonic possession or Marian apparitions are more likely to be take seriously, at least by believers, than other experiences by other segments of society outside the religious mainstream.
The second observation involves two of the actors in THE RITE. This film represents Anthony Hopkins’s return to horror, his prior effort being THE WOLFMAN (2010). Interestingly, in both films Hopkins plays a man who must wrestle with an internal evil. In THE WOLFMAN he battles the effects of a werewolf curse and releases his inner monster to roam and attack at will because, he says, “The beast must have its day.” In THE RITE his character likewise wrestles with an inner evil, but in this instance the evil is resisted, and deliverance is desired rather than unbridled relishing in that evil.
Another actor in this film completes the final part of my second observation, and that is Alice Braga. In THE RITE Braga plays a journalist, Angeline, struggling to know whether her deceased brother (who struggled for years with mental difficulties and claimed to hear voices) was really suffering from mental disease or demonic influences. Like Kovak, Angeline wrestles with the issues of faith and skepticism. It is worth noting that this is not the first time Braga has taken a role that depicts a character addressing faith in the face of evil. In I AM LEGEND (2007), Braga played Anna, a woman who believed that even in the face of a worldwide plague that turned most of the human population into contagious, monstrous creatures, God’s voice could still be heard if humanity was willing to listen.
It is here that the latter half of my second observation above leads to what I view as the major focus of this film: developing religious commitments in the midst of a skeptical age. But THE RITE presents this idea in a curious fashion, almost by “backing into” faith as understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition. According to this film’s reasoning, although life’s experiences, coupled with the reigning cultural narrative of the sciences as the arbiter of truth, make it very difficult to maintain traditional religious commitments in terms of belief in God, the presence of supernatural evil through demonic possession proves the existence of the Devil; by extension, this then proves the existence of God. If Satan exists, then God must exist as well.
Although this reasoning is problematic, it is not difficult to understand in light of Kovak’s experiences that are displayed in flashbacks and dreams over the course of the film. Kovak’s father runs a mortuary out of the family home, and thus young Michael was exposed to the unsanitized reality of death from a very young age. In addition, his mother died when he was a child; it was her death, coupled with his father’s enlisting Michael to assist with his mother’s embalming, that led to Michael’s functional atheism symbolized by the young Michael bending and twisting a crucifix behind his back as his mother’s casket is lowered into the ground. Many irreligious as well as religious convictions often begin at the experiential level, and then develop rational justification and support over time. Kovak’s lack of faith is understandable in light of the close proximity of death since his youth, and the loss of his mother, a woman of religious convictions.
Kovak’s experiences are mirrored by countless individuals in our late modern period. As just one example, a recent story in THE NEW YORKER on Guillermo del Toro included a telling paragraph which echoed similar sentiments in a National Public Radio interview of the past in which the gifted film director described his atheism as a result of his experiences with the corpses of young children in his native Mexico. In his view, no human beings can have souls, and no God can exist if even these innocents are tossed out like garbage. In other interviews with del Toro, we learn that other experiences played a part in his lack of faith, such as an overbearing religious grandmother, but the point is that the experiences of one of the greatest contemporary horror and dark fantasy film makers echoes the struggle of faith of Kovak in THE RITE. It is indeed difficult to believe in God, or in anything.
Yet here an unlikely source provides for positive religious inspiration. It is through his battles with evil personal entities – which he comes to believe are supernatural – that Kovak comes to accept the existence of the Devil. And as mentioned previously, if the Devil exists, it is argued, then in light of the Judeo-Christian tradition, then God must exist as well. Of course, there are other possible explanations, even if possession is granted as a legitimate phenomenon. After all, anthropologists have described possession across a variety of cultures and religious traditions. But it is interesting that in our skeptical age, the Devil is construed as a proof of God’s existence.
It remains to be seen how much longer Satan will be given a starring role at the box office. We have been fascinated with him for years in literature and cinema, as well as in religion and culture. Perhaps the moral ambiguity of our times – ever increasing since THE EXORCIST burst on the screen at a previous time of social upheaval and sent viewers vomiting from the theaters – demands the ultimate villain. By pointing beyond ourselves to an external and supernatural source of evil we can exorcise not only our individual but also our societal demons as well, and come to embrace faith, in something.