I just saw the new film The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins as a charming but deeply troubled exorcist, and it’s a mixed bag. On the negative side, it depends far too much on special effects and makeup — an occupational hazard for producers of demonic-possession moves ever since the really great one came out in 1973. Her head turns around, his eyes become yellow and bulgy, etc.: These things long ago lost their power to shock, and now serve only to help viewers dismiss possession by evil forces as a risible Hollywood convention. As if conscious of this problem, and fearing it might therefore fail to give the audience the spooks it deserves, the movie ladles on the cheap shocks — Omigod he’s suddenly right behind you! Omigod what’s that jumping out? (Whew, it’s a cat!) – and heads straight toward B-movie territory, perhaps even lower.
Now for the good part, and it’s a very good part indeed. The screenplay is pitch-perfect, in the dialogue it gives the demons — their speeches are vicious and unrelenting in their probing of the human guilts and weaknesses of the other characters. I have rarely seen so well captured the original meaning of the Hebrew word “Satan” — which means, literally, “accuser.” Satan is the force that loves to find the guilt and weakness in people, to humiliate them with it, to convince them that, because they are not good, God cannot love them. Think of Satan, therefore, as the ultimate prosecuting attorney, winning laughs from the gallery with his witty denunciations of the worst shames and guilts hidden in the heart of the accused, all with the goal of breaking their spirit and making them admit they belong with him and not with God. Hee hee hee, you bore false witness! You committed adultery! You coveted thy neighbor’s goods! You did sins X and Y and Z! And that’s the sum total of who you are, all you’ve ever been, all you ever will be!
The film depicts this reality — and I say it is a reality, one that can be recognized even by people who do not believe that there exists an actual angelic person named Satan; the existence in this world of a spirit of malevolence that seeks to hurt and humiliate people, toward ultimate despair, is all too sadly apparent — very convincingly indeed. (One wrong note, though, I must mention. The film makes the religious faith of the main character — a doubting Catholic seminarian — depend on his recognition that the Devil exists: Satan exists, therefore he comes to faith in God. But this is to approach the matter completely backwards. God is primary, so you should trust in God. Satan is purely parasitic on that fundamental truth, so the important thing with Satan is not to have the intellectually correct view about the form in which he exists, but rather to resist his (very real) power. To make faith in God depend on opinions about Satan is to run straight toward Manichaeism, to imply that God and Satan are somehow equal combatants. It makes for a more thrilling movie, sometimes, but it’s bad theology.)
The film is PG-13, by the way, which represents a good choice by the creative team. An R-rated version of this movie would have ramped up the physically disgusting elements, and made the movie less effective as a result.