Showing posts with label Exorcism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Exorcism. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Review: The Rite

The Rite (2010 paperback) by Matt Baglio is one of the best books I have ever read. I give it 9 out of 10 stars.

This is the book that served as the inspiration for the movie The Rite (2011) starring Anthony Hopkins, which I reviewed in January.

Both mediums, particularly the book, pleasantly treat the subject of exorcism as one that requires caution. But the book is much better than the movie. The book is non-fiction and follows the training of San Francisco priest Father Gary Thomas as he journeys to Rome to learn the trade of exorcism (the movie character Michael Kovak is said to be based on a Chicago-area exorcist). We are given in most chapters glimpses into the mind of Father Gary for whom exorcism was mostly an alien enterprise prior to his Roman visit. The reader sees through Father Gary's eyes for the first time truly horrific and unexpected events. Yet there is always a balance of humility and a desire for prudence in this learning priest's disposition. Due consideration is always given to science in accord with the Church's advice to utilize the examinations of medical doctors. One of the exorcist's primary goals is to discern when a disorder is natural or supernatural.

That brings me to another great quality of this book. There are some tangents from Father Gary's direct experiences. These tangents are typically informative and are useful in understanding the subject matter in general. For instance, on page 204, Baglio finishes a discourse on several scientific studies into potential possessions and human disorders with: "If true, quantum entanglement could help to explain how things like healing from a distance, or the power of prayer, actually work." Baglio's prudential consideration to detail and explanation make me suspect his witnessing of the Church's cautious training on exorcism lead him to the same prudence.

As well, the book is fraught with side comments on exorcism from a other exorcists including Father Gabriel Amorth who is Rome's chief exorcist, and a good number of other exorcists with whom the author had contact. This is a critical part of the value of this book. For those interested in the subject of exorcism, comparing and contrasting the experiences of actual exorcists is invaluable. The reader learns throughout the book that demons often exhibit similar behavior when manifesting. Yet sometimes behaviors are unexpected. This is where the array of experiences among the exorcists is especially useful in developing the Church's knowledge of the subject matter. Just as scientists throughout the world compare and contrast their various results to accelerate the learning process, so too do these appointed exorcists. This book is fantastic for detailing a variety of demonic behaviors.

One one occasion, Baglio describes the disparity of experience by different people present at the same exorcism (page 149): "During the exorcism, Father Gary had the overwhelming sensation that the room was suffocatingly hot, while the priest from Indianapolis smelled a terrible 'over-powering' stench." Were multiple demons at work? Was the same demon attempting to confuse? Was there something about the priests that made them each sensitive to particular phenomenon? It is details such as these that inform students of the subject much of the mystery involved in discernment and liberation and why so much care must be taken.

Contrary to one of the weaknesses of the movie, the book's Father Gary is not a "doubting" figure with a flippant attitude like his parallel film character. Father Gary enters the arena not knowing what to expect. He may ask himself "why," as the reader learns during a description of a near-fatal accident earlier in Father Gary's life, but he does not exhibit the sustained defiance of many shaky priests that are native to some Hollywood productions.

One of the saving grace of the film was echoing some of the book's details of exorcisms. The book The Rite is especially valuable for its first-hand accounts of actual exorcisms. During these scenes, my eyes were glued to the dramatic and detailed accounts of levitation, demonic dialogue, feats of strength and contortion, and other phenomenon that baffle even scientists. Those looking for a window into the actual battle of the experience will not be disappointed. From the first page, the struggles and tactics of demons during an exorcism are detailed.

A humorous moment preserved in the film, perhaps taken from the book, was a priest answering a phone during an exorcism (page 103). In comparing the two works, this parallel detail stood out since it was unusual. The book follows the moment with a description of how the priest immediately returned where he left off and the victim resumed the same disposition she had when she left. This additional information in the book leaves the reader with the feeling that the exorcist was in complete control, whereas in the movie the viewer is left wondering if Anthony Hopkins' character is crazy.

The book The Rite also includes a number of other valuable details. This includes pertinent Scriptural verses, reference resources, and perhaps most valuable to anyone is information on those most at risk for possession. Baglio often refers to the victim's experiences in the occult prior to their admission to exorcism.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Movie Review: "The Rite"

Following is a review of the 2011 movie "The Rite." This thread may contain details that could "spoil" the movie for some readers. However, I think I have not given away anything vital that would spoil any surprises. At the end of this post you will see a SPOILERS warning for a scene at the end of the movie which you may wish to skip if you have not seen the movie.

"The Rite" is a film about a skeptical Catholic seminarian (or perhaps a deacon---there was a voiceover that indicated he had been ordained a deacon although they refer to him as a seminarian) who travels to Rome and observes the exorcisms of a veteran priest. The seminarian Michael Kovak is played by Colin O'Donoghue, and the exorcist Father Lucas Trevant is played by Anthony Hopkins. The opening credits state that the movie is "suggested by the book by Matt Baglio" which is called "The Rite: The Making of an Exorcist." According to radio producer Nick Thomm (MP3), the book and film were written simultaneously so the movie can't really be said to be "based" on the book. Rather it seems there was inspiration and collaboration between Baglio and the screenplay author. As of this post, I have not read the book.

Overall, I give the film 6.5 out of 10. I would classify this as another film Catholics can view as favorable to the Church. It is fraught with Catholic imagery, statues, much of which takes place in Rome. Rosaries and Hail Marys are said, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are called upon during exorcism, confessions are heard favorably, the rite of exorcism is used along with the priest's drive to ascertain the demon's name, the warning for lay persons to not address the possessed, etc. Priests are also portrayed positively on the whole throughout the film. One bizarre moment that never comes into play was when a priest indirectly threatens Kovak financially if he dropped out of the seminary. The other bizarre thing about this priest is that it is quite unlikely that he would send a skeptical priest to learn about exorcisms because exorcism is dangerous work that demands great faith.

The best scenes in the film are early on when Kovak witnesses Father Lucas' exorcisms of a pregnant 16 year old (played by Marta Gastini, who I would say was the best actor in the film). These scenes get to the heart of the exhaustion and real battle that takes place during exorcisms. (Stories by actual priests can be read in good books like An Exorcist Tells His Story, The Devil, or Begone Satan which tells the story of a 23-day exorcism in Iowa in the 20th century. Another book I have not read is Interview with an Exorcist by Father Fortea. His talk to seminarians on exorcism is worth a listen.)

Kovak also plays the role of a skeptic throughout the film. He tries to offer scientific explanations of phenomenon whenever he can, even if his explanations are less-plausible than the demonic. There was one line where he said something to Father Lucas like: "It's hard to believe when no proof is considered proof." He said this in response to Father Lucas explaining how the devil hides so that others will doubt. Kovak's comment was left unchallenged and I wish they would have addressed the nature of faith in the face of evidence. We put our very lives at risk in the absence of proof such as when we trust the the brakes on the car will work or the food in a restaurant is not poisoned. Yet when a possession victim speaks alien languages, regurgitates foreign objects, makes impossible bodily contortions, the Kovak character was apt to demand some sort of "proof" that would dispel his own capacity to think of unlikely alternative explanations. As Blessed John Henry Newman wisely wrote well over 100 years ago: "For directly you have a conviction that you ought to believe, reason has done its part, and what is wanted for faith is, not proof, but will."

One point the film was clear to make is that in Catholicism, natural explanations must be "exhausted" before someone can be considered possessed. The character Father Lucas is himself a doctor. The medical staff at a hospital admit to having run out of medical options in another case. This is important because it shows the prudence of Catholic teaching in diagnosing this phenomenon. One does not want to fuel a victim's delusion if there are natural or psychological explanations for the disorder at work.

At times the film is a little slow and much is left unexplained. It is unclear when the devil is at work or when actions have other causes. It is also unclear when the devil "wins" any particular battle. Sterile flashbacks to Kovak's childhood are scattered throughout the film that I found more interrupting than informative.

As exorcism movies go, I would rank this second behind The Exorcism of Emily Rose and ahead of The Exorcist. All three movies do attempt to get theological portrayals correct with varying degrees of accuracy.

EDIT TO ADD: Since posting this review, I have completed a review of the book The Rite.


One questionable flaw in the movie was the portrayal of the seminarian (or deacon) Kovak performing an exorcism. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1673 When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcizing. In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called "a major exorcism," can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness.
In the film, Kovak does read a rite from a book and it is unclear whether or not this was licit. Not only did he enter the exorcism with lingering doubts of faith which likely would have rendered him weak or even succumb to the devil's wiles, but without priestly ordination, the exorcism lacked the spiritual gifts given to a priest at ordination.