'The Rite': Something to Believe In?

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There are two equal and opposite errors into which the human race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
-- C.S. Lewis in "The Screwtape Letters"

Sir Anthony Hopkins, with his eerily cold, Hannibal Lecter stare and commanding British accent, could turn "Green Eggs and Ham" into a creeptastic nightmare.

Cast as a Welsh exorcist living in a back-alley Roman pied a terre surrounded by crucifixes and stray cats in the new film "The Rite," Hopkins lends a decidedly chilling gravitas to a flawed thriller that induces more snores than scares.

The premise of the film is compelling: Young American would-be Catholic priest Michael Kovak (played by the Irish stage actor Colin O'Donoghue) wrestles with serious doubts about his faith and is dispatched to the mother ship in Rome to study -- of all things -- exorcism.

In the Eternal City, Kovak ends up apprenticing himself to a rather un-Orthodox priest (Hopkins as "Father Lucas") who is the Michael Jordan of casting out demons.

The film uses every trick in the Hollywood exorcism handbook -- replacing pea soup with up-chucked bloody Roman nails -- and is disappointingly more predictable than it is frightening. This is not a film with the staying power of 1973's iconic "The Exorcist."

To its credit, however, "The Rite" does raise a few interesting issues about the nature of belief, the most provocative of which is articulated by Hopkins, who, when confronted by his doubting apprentice, says, "Choosing not to believe in the devil won't protect you from him."

Most of us believe in the existence of the devil -- 80 percent of Americans, in fact, according to Gallup polls from 2004 and 2007, a rise of more than 20 percent from similar polls in 1996 and 1990. Such beliefs might explain, in part, the box office success of "The Rite," which has grossed more than $23.7 million in U.S. theaters, according to Box Office Mojo, the website that tracks ticket sales.

But does it matter whether we believe that the devil is "real" when confronted with evil or psychological torment?

The answer "The Rite" appears to offer is "not really."

From the start, Kovak rightly questions whether those who come seeking help from Father Lucas are really suffering from a psychological affliction or are truly demon-possessed. Lucas believes the latter, but the question posed in the film is open-ended.

Is the devil lurking behind every malady and misery, however tragic? Or are there simple medical explanations for the traumas Lucas' patients suffer? Or could it be both?

Lucas reminds his protégé that the devil is the Great Deceiver and can use doubt to keep his victims from deliverance. When Novak asks whether Lucas' clients would be better served visiting a doctor, the elder priest responds, "I am a doctor." Whether the audience is meant to understand that reply as literal or (spiritually) figurative, is unclear.

Unlike many other Hollywood depictions of exorcism, "The Rite" eschews the notion that casting out demons is as simple as splashing a little holy water and waving a crucifix. Exorcism can take days, months -- even years -- Lucas says. Each session with the exorcist is a battle in the ongoing war between good and evil, with goodness gaining and sometimes losing ground.

Faith is powerful, yes, the film posits, but so are the forces of darkness. It's not an easy fight and woe to the man who thinks it is. When his teenage patient (likely impregnated by her own father) dies horrifically while strapped to a hospital bed, Lucas is shaken to his core. He thinks the devil has won. He believes he's failed, perhaps because his own faith is too weak.

Early on in the film, Lucas admits to the younger priest that some days he isn't sure whether he believes in God, the devil or Tinkerbell. It's a fairly shocking revelation for a man whose vocation is spiritual warfare. But the toss-away line belies a deeper truth that seems to say that even a limping faith can hold significant power.

The Bible claims that faith the size of a mustard seed is still mighty -- strong enough to triumph over evil.

Faith is a gift and the gift (and its authority) comes from God, even in the hands of the weakest of vessels.

In the film's dramatic crescendo, Lucas himself is possessed (or perhaps more accurately "oppressed") by a demon that turns his crucifixes upside down and causes the good father to spout vulgarities, contort grotesquely and speak in demonic voices.

It's up to Kovak and his journalist companion to deliver Lucas from evil.

Neither the young priest nor the journalist is a pillar of unshakable faith. But they both possess a seed of belief, a limping faith, the Word of God and the exorcism handbook. Novak's task is to confront the evil with holy words, step out in his shaky faith and "act as if."

Even such a tiny kernel of faith is strong enough to pierce the darkness and restore order from spiritual chaos. That, perhaps, is a story worth believing.

A version of this post originally appeared via Religion News Service.

Cathleen Falsani is author of The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers and other books. She is a columnist for Religion News Service and Sojourners Magazine.