I must confess I am not in any way a fan of horror movies, and so I had some apprehension that this movie might degenerate into such a film. And you can tell from many of the reviews that those reviewers who went into the movie hoping to have the Devil scared out of them, were disappointed. No, this film is a psychological thriller, along the lines of Shutter Island, though without the surprise twist in the tale. I went to see this movie because Anthony Hopkins is one of my all time favorite actors, and he has memorably won awards for his performance of famous Christians— Paul in Peter and Paul in the 80s, C.S. Lewis in the Shadowlands in the 90s, to mention but two examples.
In this movie Hopkins is playing a real priest, Father Lucas Trevant, the exorcist, still practicing in a town near Florence, a man who, as the credits tell us, has performed some 2,000 exorcisms. The story is in fact based on a true story, an account written up by Matt Baglio and turned into a best seller (see picture above). Sometimes books don’t turn into good movies, but this is not one of those times. There is in fact more theology in this movie than in the last ten I have reviewed on this blog.
The occasion for this movie is in fact what happened only last November at the Vatican, in which there was a meeting because of the ever increasing rise of the demonic, or at least reports of the demonic in Europe as well as in America and elsewhere in the world. The Vatican, as the story goes, decided it was time to put an exorcist in every large parish or diocese possible to deal with the increase in things demonic. This of course would require training priests in the ancient rite of exorcism (hence the name of the movie).
The movie then tells the story of a young man who grew up Catholic, the son of a mortician, and decided to go to seminary, and then on to Rome to learn about exorcisms. His name was and is Ted Kovaks, and he currently has a parish outside of Chicago. This story is not the stuff of Hollywood fantasies and imagination. It is a story based in a real spiritual journey of a real priest, a priest whose faith in God was somewhat shaky, and his belief in the Devil and demons even more so. In this sense, this movie, like the Meryl Streep movie could have been dubbed ‘Doubt’. But in fact, it is more about convincing the priest, and indeed the audience of the reality of the demonic.
I must confess, I need no such convincing. I am already there. Recently a friend of mine named Sarah was asked to do a Discovery Channel special. Now Sarah is your prototypical modern person, very bright, likes to think of herself as open-minded, comes from a family of scientists and had serious doubts about the demonic. She was taken to some exorcisms and other such events, and came away pretty shaken up. She saw evil things she could not explain. I understand. And as she said to me “running into the Devil causes a crisis of faith, now I need to figure out what I believe about God”.
Until you run face forward into the powers of darkness, it is easy to bracket all such thoughts out of your mind, or place it in the category of the boogeyman you feared lived under your bed when you were a child. I remember well an occasion when I went to my first exorcism service. There were people writhing on the floor of Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston, and it was easy enough to think some of this was sympathetic counterfeiting. But there were a couple of examples that were not at all like that, and scared me good. Demon possession, I am convinced is real, and it gives new meaning to the phrase ‘don’t get bent all out of shape’. But what of this movie?
As I said its a psychological thriller and develops its tension slowly, like bringing a pot gradually to a boil (the movie lasts less than two hours and has a PG-13 rating for a couple of intense scenes). The tension as it turns out dwells in the character played by a good Irish American boy Colin O’Donoghue. Unfortunately his performance does not rise at all to the level of Hopkins (about whom some are saying this is his most impress screen performance since Hannibal Lecter, indeed one could say he acts like a man possessed).
Does young Mr. Kovaks believe in the Devil, or does he not? And can he be convinced of his existence through experiences? As Father Lucas tells him “failure to believe in the Devil will not protect you from the Devil”. When Father Xavier asks young Kovaks “Do you believe in sin?” His answer is yes, but he adds ‘But I don’t believe the Devil makes me do it’. If a familiar and trite answer. It is nonetheless a good answer because Christians who have the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit in their lives cannot be possessed by demons, and indeed cannot be compelled by Satan to do this, that, or the other. Satan is rightly portrayed in this movie as being a deceiver, a misleader, a liar, a being who preys on human doubts and frailities. One of the dangers of this sort of movie is that Satan comes off looking strong and powerful, and Jesus and Christians come off looking like wimps. Needless to say ‘wimp exorcist’ is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. You don’t go dance with the Devil or dabble with darkness regularly unless you have some courage. I remember in seminary my roommate’s story of running into demon possession in a man in Bluefield West Virginia during a summer ministerial internship. The story still sends chills down my spine.
To its credit, this movie does not caricature priests or the Catholic church, and it certainly attempts to portray the powers of darkness as all too real, not the figments of human imagination, but it quite rightly tells us that a person, including a priest, first must pursue every normal psychological explanation for what is happening to a disturbed person, before entertaining the possibility of possession and the need for exorcism. Christians of course have problems, indeed sometimes psychological problems but one thing that is not the case is that Christians unawares can be possessed. This is just bad theology, and so it is unfortunate that Hopkins is portrayed as being a victim of possession at one juncture in this movie.
Unless a Christian renounces his Christian faith, the Devil may bewilder or bother, pester or pursue a Christian, but he cannot possess him. “Greater is he who is in us, than any of the forces in the world.” There is entirely too much loose talk in some Christian circles about the Devil making Christians do this, that or the other and even more loose talk about having a cold that a demon created in you etc. Of this sort of thing the Bible says nothing. I even heard a seminary student once blame the Devil for his wreckless driving which led to him totally a professor’s car!
The NT however does not let Christians off that easily. It calls us to take responsibility for all our actions, and it tells us that if we resist the Devil, he will flee. And have you noticed that in the more than half the NT which deals with Christian life after Pentecost, we hear nothing about Christians being possessed— for example, Paul doesn’t even mention the word demon but once in all his letters? Demon possession is not a problem he confronted in the Christian church, it would appear, unless of course someone commits apostasy of some sort.
We need to maintain a balance then between giving the Devil his due, and giving him far too much credit. Jesus’ death on the cross has already stripped the Devil and his minions of much of his power. But at the same time, as C.S. Lewis famously said in The Screwtape Letters, the Devil’s best smokescreen is convincing us he doesn’t exist.
This movie is not a great movie, not even with another fine performance by Anthony Hopkins. But you will hear more about Christ and the Devil in this movie than probably any other movie this year. It raises some of the right questions about faith and doubt and supernatural evil, and in that sense it has ‘the Rite stuff’. It is worth seeing if for no other reason than it can prompt you to ask yourself— now what do I really believe about Satan and demons?