In 2007, the Vatican announced a new initiative to educate clergy in the rite of exorcism. With the Church receiving an estimated half-million exorcism requests annually, Roman Catholic officials stated they wanted priests in every diocese trained to expel demons. Matt Baglio, a reporter in Rome, was intrigued by the announcement and spent time with an American priest undergoing this training. The result was his nonfiction book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist. And The Rite, in turn, is a cinematic fictionalization "inspired by [the] true events" Baglio wrote about.
This intense spiritual thriller revolves around two dramatically different characters. Michael Kovak is a seminarian on the verge of taking his priestly vows … or dropping out due to doubts about God's existence. Father Lucas, in contrast, is a veteran—and unconventional—Italian exorcist. Their paths cross when Michael's priest suggests that he spend a few months in Rome participating in the Church's new training class for exorcists, which he hopes will allay Michael's spiritual questions.
Father Lucas immediately invites Michael to witness an attempted exorcism of Rosaria, a pregnant 16-year-old girl. The girl's exorcism is a work in progress, we learn, one that could take anywhere from months to years. The key, Lucas says, is getting the demonic entity to divulge its name, which in turn gives the priest the authority (in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) to expel it permanently.
The demon is not cooperating. And Michael is skeptical. He peppers Lucas with questions about how someone can know whether a person is truly possessed or merely mentally ill. Even as Rosaria exhibits behavior that can only be attributed to supernatural means—she knows things about Michael she could not possibly have figured out on her own, for example—Michael clings to his conviction that what she really needs is psychiatric help, not spiritual deliverance. Joining him in that skepticism is Angeline, a journalist who wants to write about the church's renewed emphasis on exorcism.
When things go from bad to worse for Rosaria, Michael and Father Lucas find themselves vulnerable to a terrifying demonic assault. And if they are to survive, Michael must once and for all lay to rest his unbelief.
Because, as Father Lucas warns, "Choosing not to believe in the devil won't protect you from him."
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Despite their stubborn skepticism, both Michael and Angeline insist they want to know the truth. And when the truth becomes undeniably obvious, they're both willing to accept it. They're also willing to put themselves at significant risk to try to save Father Lucas when the demon attacks him.
It's subtly implied that many of Michael's doubts stem from his inability to deal with his mother's death when he was a young boy. But that doesn't stop him from carrying a cherished note from her that reads, "You are not alone. He will always be with you." And despite the tension in his relationship with his stern, aging father—mostly over whether Michael will take over the family mortuary business—Michael repeatedly recalls his father's description of his deceased wife: "My love, my flower, my beautiful."
A father-son relationship of sorts emerges between Michael and Father Lucas. Among other things, the older man tells Michael, "You're a good man, Michael. You have a good soul. Defend it, guard it, cherish it." In the end, Lucas affirms Michael's newfound faith, saying, "Faith becomes you. Stay with it. Keep fighting the good fight."
As is the case in 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Rite takes a close look at how the Catholic Church seeks to address demon possession. In the process, it affirms a biblical understanding of the reality and influence of Satan and his demonic emissaries (it's stated that the devil "took a life ... and that's what he wants, ultimately") and the corresponding truth that he can be overcome by a faith-filled Christ-follower operating in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Over and over again we hear first Father Lucas and then Michael employ variations on that phrase as they command demons to depart.
The iconic elements of the Catholic exorcism ritual—crucifixes and holy water—get small amounts of screen time. And demons seem to enter people through almost viral means: Rosaria through her father's sperm when he raped her, Father Lucas when he cuts himself shaving. Mostly, though, the emphasis is placed on faith and the spiritual authority of the exorcists working on God's behalf.
Two important scenes underscore this. In one, Father Lucas says that the efficacy of an exorcism has nothing to do with his power as a frail man, but on God's power. Similarly, Michael tries to conduct an exorcism of Father Lucas (when he's attacked) simply by reading the exorcism rite. But he concludes that reading the words alone isn't enough, and he ultimately cries out to God for help.
Also paralleling Emily Rose, the film grapples with how to tell the difference between psychiatric ailments and genuine demonic oppression. The priest teaching the class, Father Xavier, emphasizes that part of an exorcist's responsibility is to ensure that all possible psychiatric tests have been tried and found wanting.
Much of the film proffers specific details about the mundane signs of possession (apathy, physical tremors) and the more dramatic ones (knowledge of unknowable information, superphysical feats). Rosaria, for instance, describes her experience when the demon is in control as similar to being in a dream or a nightmare. Once demonic entities are engaged in an exorcism rite, they frequently hurl vile accusatory statements at those involved, such as, "God is not here, priest!" and telling people that their loved ones are in hell.
A demon unleashes terrible accusations against Michael via Father Lucas in the film's conclusion, trying to convince him that God has never loved him. "How could God possibly love you when your daddy didn't?" the entity says. "You were never meant for God, Michael. You were always meant for me. … You chose me long ago." Michael resists.
Michael sees a red-eyed, mule-like demon that is plaguing a young boy. Hoof-shaped bruises are visible on the boy's torso. Michael also sees hoof prints in the snow. Frogs are similarly used as symbols of Satan's presence.
Father Lucas acknowledges his own seasons of doubt and questioning, but affirms that God has always pulled him back from darkness into the light of faith. Lucas tries to convince Michael that the devil's primary nature is deception. "Does a thief or a burglar turn on the lights when he's robbing your house?" he asks. "No. He prefers you believe he's not there. Like the devil."
For her part, Angeline wonders if her institutionalized brother actually suffers from demonic possession instead of mental illness. And a demon accuses her of having sentenced her brother to death by not getting him out of the facility where he died.
One of Michael's friends jokes that Michael must be gay and/or willing to sacrifice his manhood (he puts it in cruder terms than that) if he's going into the priesthood. We see Michael flirt with a bar waitress (wearing a miniskirt) who makes a suggestive comment about sex later. (It seems that the two may already be dating.)
In several scenes involving Rosaria, the pregnant teen is obviously not wearing a bra. In the middle of an exorcism, Rosaria looks lustfully at Michael and says, "Rape me." She then quotes a suggestive saying his old girlfriend used to offer, writhing to expose most of her thighs.
A demon also says through Rosaria, "When the devil doesn't have anything to do, he rapes ... children." After Father Lucas is possessed (the film doesn't give any credence to the theological position that excludes Christians from the possibility of possession), he repeatedly calls Angeline a "slut" and accuses Michael of lusting after her.
When Father Lucas tries to exorcise Rosaria's demon, she becomes physically agitated, raking her fingernails across a chair. In their next encounter, she also writhes wildly, and it looks as though something besides the child is moving in her exposed abdomen. She vomits three long nail-like spikes. Later, Father Lucas coughs up a bloody nail as well. Rosaria writhes and strains against restraints in a hospital until she gives premature birth to a stillborn child. Then she too dies. (We see a widening spot of blood on the bed sheet.)
In exorcism class, pictures are shown of a victim whose gaping jaw was dislocated by a demon. Michael has an encounter with a demon in a dream where clawed hands grab his neck and choke him.
The first clue that Father Lucas has himself been possessed comes when he slaps a little girl at a public park. Michael and Angeline bind his arms and legs to a chair while attempting an exorcism, but he breaks free, tossing one of them across the room and pinning the other against the wall.
Michael and his mortician father are shown preparing corpses for burial. In this sequence there are images of incisions being made and a woman's mouth being stitched shut. Michael is tormented by a memory of his father beginning the embalming process on Michael's dead mother.
A man trips from a sidewalk into a bicyclist who's then propelled in front of a van that hits her. She impacts the windshield, then the concrete, and her face is badly bloodied. Michael prays with her as she dies. We also see the body of a motorcyclist killed in another traffic accident.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word, two s-words. Also an exclamation or two each of "h‑‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "t-tties" and "d‑‑k." We hear infrequent misuses of Jesus' and God's names.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Michael and Eddie have beers at a bar. Two nuns smoke. A priest says he's quit smoking but is now addicted to nicotine-filled gum.
Other Negative Elements
Michael's upper body is shown as he urinates in a seminary bathroom.
Looking at the trailers and posters for The Rite, many moviegoers will likely assume that it's just another schlock horror offering about beasties that go bump in the night. It's actually a pretty serious exploration of the subject of exorcism in the Catholic Church.
It's also a film that, allowing for a few exceptions and disagreements, lines up with what the Bible has to say about the reality of demonic forces. In John 10:10, Jesus says, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." The Rite affirms both the positive and the negative in that truth. We're reminded that "the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8) and that because of Christ—and only in Him—we are able to "be strong in the Lord" in skirmishes "against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Ephesians 6:10,12). The film adamantly affirms that empty ritual isn't enough to overcome evil. Only faith paired with the power of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit has a chance of overcoming such potent darkness.
Make no mistake: There's some sensationalized darkness here, especially the coughed up nails and red-eyed mule-fiend. This is an intense, sometimes graphic depiction of two men's direct encounters with evil spiritual forces—as only Hollywood can visualize it.
But it's also a sober look at something modern, Western Christians don't spend very much time thinking about in our spiritually sterile, logically ordered, iPod-enhanced world. And that makes it a poignant reminder that we are indeed in a spiritual battle, a battle that rages all around us … even if the vast majority of us, thankfully, will never experience it quite like the people in this story do.