Sir Anthony Hopkins is one of those interesting actors. Best known as an incredible actor throughout his entire career, sometimes he will do movies that are, for lack of better words, slumming it – doing a movie for a paycheck. Freejack. Alexander. The Edge. The Wolfman. Red 2. To be fair, I cannot really blame him. It must be hard to be considered one of the best actors of your generation, and to have such high expectations for everything you do. Sometimes you just want to act, to try new things, to do something different. When you are someone as talented as Hopkins, with so much creative power at your fingertips, it has be to unleashed lest you explode.
So I guess Sir Hopkins is allowed to make a movie where he chews the scenery as a renegade priest performing exorcisms without sanction from the Vatican. And since he is allowed to do so, we need to watch it as part of our project on feminist tensions in exorcism cinema.
The Rite (2011) is one of the more recent entries in this list of exorcism cinema, and it belongs to the recent trend of such films needing to portray themselves as realistic in order to be scary. I’m not sure how much I would classify this film as a horror movie, as I did not find it terribly scary. Perhaps, by the time we watched this film, I had seen so many others that I was becoming desensitized — or perhaps I really only can be scared by found footage horror films now. Either way, this movie reminded me more of Stigmata (1999) than The Devil Inside (2012). And as I sit down to write this post, several months after having seen the movie, what I read in my notes is somewhat of a revelation for me, as I do not remember a thing about this movie.
But since it features demons, possession, exorcism, and the pesky questions of is this real and is this sanctioned, what follows are those notes, where I will relive my experience of watching the movie as much as you will.
Of course it is inspired by true events — and this appears to be the man who inspired it.
Beginning with the embalming of a woman who has a devil tattoo. Was she the victim of a demonic possession? Or just a representation of a bad, loose woman? Suggestion that she died from suicide, which means her soul went to hell according to Catholic religion.
The young man, Michael (Colin O’Donoghue), who was doing the embalming, is going to seminary school. Too bad he has a sexy young girl who apparently wants him — our introduction to her is by the camera following her butt clad in a mini skirt. So, that’s a bit sexist. Michael says everyone in the family is either a mortician or a priest, and his father appears to be very religious. Michael, however, is showing doubt about being a priest even before he becomes a priest. Again we are seeing the protagonist set up as having a crisis of faith and the struggle with the devil restores that faith. Come on, movie, show me something different!
So apparently demonic possession is on the rise in the US. The Church wants to put an exorcist in every diocese in the nation, and Michael is being sent to the exorcism school in Rome to be trained to be an exorcist. That was a very sudden introduction of exorcism into the movie — there was no indication of supernatural up to this point. And, again, it does really seem that the movie is positioning exorcism as a way to redeem faith — and yet it is redemption through the torture of women…
Ah, exorcism class — looks just like the part from The Devil Inside. Even shows videos just like that movie did. It is a rather high tech lecture hall — does that mean high tech exorcism equipment? That would also be similar to The Devil Inside, which came out a year after The Rite. But there are women in the class! And I think I sense a romance between this one woman and young Michael.
A lot of discussion about psychology, and about how to know the difference between mental disorders and possession. Interesting parallel drawn between possession and alien abduction — why believe in one but not the other?
Is the idea of the redemption through battling the devil and saving a tortured woman, is that also about re-instilling faith in the patriarchy to be able to protect, safeguard, control the world?
Chris Olson is suggesting that we need to look at the representation of crows in other mythologies, since crows repeatedly come up in these films. Mythologies such as Nordic, with the idea of crows as being a representation of knowledge given their link to Odin. Could the presence of crows in these films be a way to break through the repression due to those who seek to limit knowledge to only the elite?
Lots of cats — Father Lucas Trevant (Sir Anthony Hopkins) talks about how cats do whatever they want — a parallel to women? Since women are often metaphorically linked with cats, and even historically through witchcraft.
Father Lucas is set to perform an exorcism on a young very pregnant woman, who would be considered not very innocent, sexually. Also, Father Lucas is another Welsh exorcist — another similarity to The Devil Inside. The pregnant woman is hearing voices, with the idea being that the Devil is talking to her. She demonstrates ticks, growling — and has a similar charm bracelet to the embalmed woman. The connection being, perhaps, that both were not innocent, but both needed or need saving by these men of faith.
The possessed woman is talking back angrily against Father Lucas, but it is still her voice, no masculinized demon voice.
Funny — Father Lucas makes reference to The Exorcist. His goal is to show the “real” nature of exorcism to counter the Hollywood version.
“It gets complicated when no proof of the devil somehow becomes proof of the devil.” Spoken by young Michael, demonstrating his loss of faith. Even Father Lucas had a loss of faith. But he felt compelled by pain, by God, to do God’s work. Michael, it seems, will only be compelled by a sense of guilt for not saving women.
The Italian romance interest is a journalist who wants to write about the truth of exorcism. This subplot plays into Michael’s skepticism and loss of faith.
Father Lucas is set up as unorthodox and outside of the Church’s official sanctions. A very common theme in these movies. The priest doing exorcisms because he feels it is the right thing to do. It sets up the priest as an underdog, as compared to the demon and the Church. Makes the priest seem more heroic for doing what needs to be done to save the girl, and thus the world.
The possessed woman speaks only Italian, so Michael cannot understand her. And Father Lucas acts as translator — so that we will not even see subtitles, not see her real words. Her voice is through Father Lucas, as if he is controlling her. After all, she is only 16. He speaks her story to young Michael, thus showing how he controls or stands in as her agency.
Also, 10-to-1 her father got her pregnant. Even young Michael believes that.
Then she speaks in English — in a more masculine voice — by shoving the charm bracelet into Michael’s face and directly referring to the embalmed woman. Saying she is in hell. She comes on to young Michael, asks him to rape her, all in English. So the demon is giving her a voice to talk to young Michael. There, that is the direct link — the endangered woman who needs saving by the heroic priest. And the use of the more traditional masculine voice to represent the demon again indicates the idea that the possession gives the woman the ability to speak in a way she otherwise could not or would not.
And there are weird convulsions in her pregnancy — like there is a demon in there — and she coughs up iron nails, like the kind used on Jesus in the crucifixion. Young Michael offers up scientific, psychological explanations.Because, yeah, she could’ve swallowed the nails to cough up at the opportune time. I guess it is a good thing that they set up that he is good at psychology.
Father Lucas says choosing not to believe in the devil will not protect you from it. I think that is the message meant for Americans, about why Americans are at risk for demonic possession.
Father Lucas lost a young boy once during an exorcism and lost his faith for awhile. So now they are on a house call to a young boy who has had dreams of a mule, who said he is the boy’s father and wants the boy to kill himself. But Father Lucas accuses the mother of hitting the boy – is the mother a single mother? He purifies the boy’s pillow, pretending to kill a frog he took out of it. The boy gets a premonition that young Michael is going to die.
Michael accuses Father Lucas of being happy with lying to people, having them believe something that isn’t true, while young Michael prefers people knowing the truth. Which again shows the tension of faith – how do you believe in something without proof?
The pregnant woman tried to drown herself and was taken to the hospital. She is now speaking as the demon in English. Demon says it entered her with her father’s seed, indicating a rape. So the possession could just be due to this trauma. Young Michael uses logic on her, saying back to the demon how can I fear you when you don’t exist?
And when the priests are not around the pregnant woman showed facial contortions and putrid skin – the baby’s heart rate increases, she bleeds from her vagina as we see cockroaches enter the room. All of this just for the viewer to see, not the priests, so no confirmation of their beliefs, just ours.
And the woman dies. But she died without confirming to young Michael that she was possessed, so he still doubts, is still skeptical, while Father Lucas believes the devil took her and that he lost another one to the devil.
Michael dreams about a woman – the embalmed woman – trying to kill him. He has memories of seeing his mother the same way. At same time as his dream, his father back in the United States had a massive stroke.
Frogs also feature in this movie – such as the invasion in young Michael’s room — and frogs have a history of being associated with witches.
I love the use of the Icelandic volcano shutting down European air space as the reason for preventing him from flying home to see his ailing father – a sign of God or the Devil?
Michael believes he is talking to his dad over the phone – who says people are hurting him, that he doesn’t know where he is – but he learns that his father had died six hours earlier. Michael sees horse hoof prints in the snow outside his hotel – to represent the Devil walking? He hears voices, laughing, both male and female, and then sees the charm bracelet. He thinks he hears/sees his dad. His crisis of faith is meeting a full blown spiritual reawakening – or just a regular hallucination. He sees a mule with red eyes, like the one the boy described. But there is no mule, and there is no snow.
Ah, the young boy had a premonition that young Michael’s father was going to die. He says that the mule, the demon, told him, the same one young Michael has seen. He learns this with the woman journalist translating.
But Father Lucas saw something weird in his bathroom mirror, perhaps because of losing the pregnant woman, and is now going a little bit out of his mind. A lot of psychological breakdowns in this movie. Such as walking around essentially naked and barefoot, slapping young children. Sitting in the rain. He believes he is possessed, since he coughed up the same nails as pregnant lady. “The terror is real, Michael, but you will only defeat it when you believe.” Do the cats know he is possessed? Do they make him possessed?
Okay, upside down crucifixes are not a good sign. Now the horror movie has Father Lucas as the villain. So when he had the odd gaze into the mirror, he was seeing himself possessed? That reflection important also in The Last Exorcism Part II. Something about the mirror being able to show the inner self, the true self.
Now it is the Father Lucas exorcism scene, including a door closing on its own. But he is speaking in his own voice, taunting young Michael with guilt over his father’s death. Some growling, disembodied voices. So this is the only time I have seen so far of a movie really showing a priest being both the possessed and the exorcist. It was briefly indicated in The Devil Inside, but no ritual was performed and no confirmation of possession was given. And in The Exorcist he takes on the demon to save Regan, and the second sequel indicates that Father Damien actually did become possessed, but that was never clear.
Instead of waiting for an experienced priest, young Michael does the exorcism himself. Some physical changes to Father Lucas’ face, the discoloration of possession so common to these films – like the mirror, showing the real inner being as one of a demon. The commanding of the name, the identification, to give power to the priest over the demon. Definitely taunting young Michael, for bending the cross and disavowing God and choosing the Devil. We are hearing disembodied voices, but are the characters as well? Taunting that Michael was not chosen by God, like his mother had told him.
Father Lucas asks if Michael believes in the Devil – his eyes roll back in his head, he may bend his crucifix again, sees memories of his mother, then his eyes straighten, and he says he believes in God. Uses this new power to command the Devil out of Father Lucas by demanding the name, and he gets Baal – which would explain the presence of cats and toads in this film. And in speaking the name the discoloration goes away. The speaking of the name seems to be the confession to God, since the priest is God’s servant in the matter. So once God learns the demon’s name, it can no longer hold any sway over the possessed individual. The demon’s agency is lost once its secret is known, once the name has been spoken. The power of speech is highly important here.
We are not just dealing with sexuality and gender politics here – which was not terribly prominent, except for the idea of saving women and the incest. We are dealing with agency more. It is sexuality being an expression of empowerment, power, agency that signals how it must be repressed – women using their sexuality empowers them, which means they could be speaking in ways undesirable. A sexually empowered woman may be a woman who speaks her mind and speaks against oppression and control — and that could be dangerous for those seeking to maintain a specific status quo.
Thus this movie seems to be more about the use of demonic possession not just to show the tensions we have about female sexuality but also to show the tensions we have about women finding their voice and their power to take control in their own lives.