'The Rite' Stuff

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?

  • James Lung

    Excellent review. I may have to reconsider my decision not to attend movies like this one.

    After reading HOSTAGE TO THE DEVIL, I decided I already knew more than I needed to know about possession and the works of the evil one. I know it will give me the creeps, and I prefer not to participate in entertainment, even a documentary, that gives the evil one attention it does not deserve.

    Do you think I could still credibly discuss the movie with friends who mention it if I choose not to view it?

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Hi James:

    It’s not a complicated movie, and its not really a horror movie either. I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t see it. It is a fairly serious look at a serious subject. And no, I don’t think you can talk intelligently about something you haven’t seen or read.



  • http://www.oscarsflickpicks.com Oscar

    Thanks for the review Ben, you’ve just pushed me over the edge into going to see it today. Like you, I am a great fan of Hopkins, and if it were any lesser actor then I probably would have let this one go, bur Sir Anthony elevates the whole affair above mere schlock.

    And on the devil, I spend little time talking about him. There is so much more to consider in our faith walk that is more important, deeper, and relevant than a defeated foe. I teach an adult Sunday school class and lead a small group and although I don’t avoid discussing passages about the devil, I DO take Paul’s tack on the subject, which is minimal.

    People like to talk about fighting the devil and the devil working in the world so I point them to Revelation 20 where the devil is bound, and the conquering saints STILL have to rule with a rod of iron. Fallen humanity naturally sins but it is the devil who directs that propensity toward his own devices.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Righto Oscar, except Satan is not bound during the course of church history, but rather during the future millenium after Christ returns according to Rev. 20.



  • http://rm519blog.blogspot.com/ Yasmin

    I just saw this movie yesterday, after anxiously waiting for it to come out. I hope everyone get to see this movie, especially our dear ones who still don’t ‘believe’. Even if this movie doesn’t convince them, the seed will be planted.

    Thanks for the great review!

  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=100000048003152 Kimberly Patterson

    The lack of imagination and Hollywood’s propensity for depravity on the big and small screens have me looking elsewhere for entertainment these days. SciFi, Criminal Mind type shows, and even TV Evangelism leave a bad taste in my mouth. That said original ‘The Exorcist’ movie did me in for good, so much so, I would not entertain viewing any flick written around the evil spirits drama. However, if there is an ounce of faith in GOD in the movie I may try to keep one eye open to viewing the “The Rite”; especially that Hopkins is a favorite of mine, also.
    Thank you for the review.

  • http://www.rmkocak.com rm Kocak

    Dr. Witherington,

    Thanks for this review and lesson! When I bumped into you at the Nicholasville movie theater on Friday, I hoped you would write a review just like this one!

    In Christ,


  • http://beachgurl7248@yahoo.com Faith..or Fear??

    This movie made me feel fear.. to me …I kept praying to God to protect my mind my spirit!!!. I think it wud have been better ifff hopkins could help that pregnate lady be free from those demons she had! why the hek was hopkins even possessed anyways?! Isn’t he supose to be a beleiver a servant a person that has a personal relationship with Christ?! I mean I don’t get it. So yup he’s possessed. And the newbee starts freakin out and seeing things and ends. Up dragging the demons out of hopkins..suposidly! ! but is he himself. truly a beleiver in Christ?! I think it wud have been a better movie if they showed more of Gods power at hand. I think it shud have brought people to believe in Christ . But of course we live in this world were its ok to bring little inoccent children to watch movies like this. All it brings is nothing but fear. Fear for the unbeleiver. And dud I think that having an exorcism shud be better if they had a movie with more of Christ work at hand.. and not just a could of hail marys at the end of the movie..

  • Stuart

    If you do not have faith in god, you cannot fight against the devil, this lesson is included in the movie. Anthony Hopkins character Padre Lucas Trevant mentions this, that he loses faith and eventually god scrapes his fingernail across his soul back into the faith. While he does not believe he is not in a state of grace, he also failed to ask to be absolved in the hospital.

    Sides most of you lot fail to acknowledge that the true faith derives from the church of st. Peter. That is the holy roman church and those that acknowledge it’s authority of spiritual matter here on earth.

    I found the movie quite thrilling, with many inaccuracies of the true faith. However it was a worthy attempt of a very complicated subject.

    It must be said though to be honest and truthful about my beliefs that right now, I am not a christian. I was once catholic, but I am noT one unless I choose to reconcile myself with the faith. If I was to believe, that faith would have me be roman catholic, russian or Greek orthodox as they are true to the throne of st. Peter

  • http://www.80gritproductions.com joe

    This move was very entertaining and Anthony Hopkins was brilliant as always. I can relate to the “Rite” as I personally have faced many demons over the last few decades. Although my situations did not involve actual demon possessions I “exercised” a succubus from a neighbors home and it was a very intense and frightening experience. While I was confronting this demon the family left to go to their mother’s home and the demon followed them their to the complete disbelief and dismay of their mother. She was frantic and in tears when I talked to her.

    After I “exorcised” this demon it came into my home in the middle of the night. There was a loud explosion in my attic that woke my wife and 3 of my 5 children. I reassured them as we said a prayer and I explained to my wife that it was the demon having a “temper tantrum” as she returned to whence she came.

    Most of my demonic confrontations came during the hypnagogic state and some episodes lasted many minutes into wakefulness. On one occasion I tore my entire room to pieces as I fought off a clan of demons. My wife called 9-11 as she thought there our home was being invaded by thieves.

    I don’t choose to “fight” these demons anymore. I simply close my eyes when I sense their presence and I call on the blood of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. I still suffer from terrible dreams/visions that I believe are connected to the fate of humanity (i.e. not merely generated by my personal sub conscience). A year ago I was surrounded by 11 demons and they were closing in on me. The sounds and sights were so terrifying that I was paralyzed (for the first time ever) in fear. As they closed in I balled up like a baby on the floor shivering and weeping. I’ll never forget that moment as I truly believe I would have died in my sleep that night had Christ not appeared. He floated over me and his eyes where those of a Lion’s. The instant he showed the demons dispersed and he floated down through my soul. I woke up with tears of Joy and goosebumps second to none. It was that day that I took my sanctification to the next level and began serving the Lord from the bottom of my heart.

    The Devil and the third of the angelic host that sided with him are real my friends. Equally real is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Call on him, trust in him, serve him. Put on your full armor of God as Ephesians tells us for if and when the devil finds a crack in your armor, he will rush in to exploit it. May God bless all who have read my sincere words. Amen

  • Camie

    “The Rite” was probably one of the best movies I have ever seen. It definitely gets its point across to the veiwer. There are two sides specifically shown in the move: Good vs. Evil- God vs. The Devil. But just because I choose to beleive in The Devil doesn’t mean I necissarily beleive that there is a God. The Devil has the power to show himself and does by manifesting through human beings. I’ve never seen any trace or existance of a God. If there is a God, then where was “he” when the World was being created?

  • Dan

    The bottom line is if you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior you will have eternal salvation and the devil can not possess you because your are God’s child at that point. You don’t have to belong to a particular church to go to heaven. That is not in the bible. You simply need to step out on “Faith”, ask for your sins to be forgiven, (go straight to God yourself and not a priest) and ask Jesus to come into your heart. You can’t lose your salvation once you actually have it. It’s a free gift from God. It’s eternal. The devil is real though and we always need to have the Armor of God on each and every day.

  • BB

    It should be mentioned that your name can be blotted out of the book of life. Read your bible, ask God for wisdom and let no one make you doubt in the power of God. People will always believe what they will, everyone has a choice… don’t let that hinder your decision.

  • coachman

    Geeez. This review is longer than the damn movie and just a bit more preachy and boring.

  • Ralph

    Wow you people who believe this nonsense are nuts… seriously nuts! It’s kinda-like Creationism or whatever that BS is called NuTs!

  • Jo

    It is said, “innocence is bliss.” and Experience is the greatest teacher. Wisdom is gained, at the expense of innocence. This seems to be the learning experience, of an exorcist. Thank you for your bravery, in coming forth with your story. May God Bless and keep you, In Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen,

  • Cybelle Hawke

    I think the most accurate point of this movie is the demonic power to deceive, which is in my opinion the very underestimated component in all discussion and debate about the existance of demonic activities, or the devil all together.

    A master deceiver who does not just succeed in deceiving the simple and stupid (we have politicians for that) but indeed the intelligent and smart…

    To me it was, and once more is clear that as long as you rely on your own discernment, be it as believer, be it as skeptic, you will be an easy prey.

    Another thing that I think worth highlighting is that a possessed person does not seem to be the only purpose. Apart from the suffering and agony a possessed person goes through, the demonic activities seem to pursue a deceiving goal for those who are near or intimate with the person possessed….

    May I also express that I burst out laughing when the exorcist (Sir Anthony Hopkins) answered his cellphone? I think it is exactly that attitude towards the earthly rituals as defined by an equally earthly church, that makes an exorcist.

  • Uniquejan6

    I agree with everything written here by the commentator. I had exactly the same thoughts about the movie. The movie really made me wonder about the dark influence on people, and I felt it was a Christian-based horror thriller, which is nice for a change.