The other day, my wife and I saw The Rite. It’s a film based on a book written by the Catholic priest Fr. Gary Thomas and his experiences with exorcism and demons. Starring Anthony Hopkins and Colin O’Donoghue, it was a decent film, the tension and suspense being found more in the atmosphere than the scenes or the dialogue. Anthony Hopkins does his fantastic job as usual, while Colin was somewhat wanting in his performance, something I would chalk to a lack of experience than anything else. While the Catholic community in America received it warmly, Rotten Tomatoes rated it 20%, with many mainstream critics panning it negatively. I would have to ask the question however, why is this?
For a moment however, let’s assume the fault isn’t with me: that I enjoyed the film because of a lack of taste on my part, but maybe rather the fault is with the critics: A movie about God triumphing over evil just isn’t artistic or good enough to be on film. Let’s face it, Christianity in Hollywood tends to receive quite the beating, and the Christian films that have come out in response have been… lacking. Films like God’s Not Dead (and its atrocious sequel), Fireproof, Courageous, and other such abominations to film making have not done Christians any favors. Yet the The Rite, doesn’t engage in the sins of these films: we don’t see the same tripe, rather we see a seminarian whose faith has been shattered by the death of his mother, we see what is obviously a very emotional and spiritual struggle that comes to the conclusion of his faith restored through spiritual battle. The man fights off Ba’al, for Heaven’s sake, one of the most powerful demons of Hell.
Yet while the modern critic does not like this conflict as it is portrayed in The Rite, he oddly enough however, he is entertained and exhilarated by the same conflict as it was portrayed within the Lord of the Rings, whether in the books or the films. We see him wide-eyed with fear when Gandalf faces off the terrifying Balrog, we feel his heart race with excitement when the armies of Mordor and Isengard are defeated, and he yells triumphantly when the rings is cast into the fires of Mount Doom, and Sauron is destroyed. The Lord of the Rings is about the conflict between God and the legions of Satan. If you find that hard to believe, think about this: Gandalf is not a mere wizard, rather is one of the Istari: one of the five spirits sent to the people of Middle-Earth in Human form to guide them by Eru, the God of the LOTR universe. Think of the battle between Gandalf and the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring: as the Balrog approaches, Gandalf proclaims, ‘You cannot pass!’ He then says that he a wielder of the secret flame of Anor. Anor means sun in Sindarin, one of the Elvish langauges. He tells the Balrog that he has no power here, calling him a flame of Udun. Udun means hell in Sindarin. With this in mind, let us think about what is happening here: Gandalf, an angel of God is calling out the Balrog, telling the creature that he knows exactly what he is, and that he shall be defeated. Whether reading in the book, or watching the film, we are witnessing a conflict between an Angel of God and a demon of Hell: and we see that the power and might of God triumphs over all. A similar thing is happening in The Rite: Michael, the young seminarian, does battle with the demon Ba’al who has possessed his mentor, the exorcist Fr. Lucas. He proclaims his power in God, and when he identifies Ba’al, he calls the demon out by name and banishes it back to hell. While there is no swordplay or magic involved, it is the same conflict.
So then why does the modern critic find it revolting when God’s servants carry crosses rather than staffs and swords into battle? The Rite, for all its flaws is not some prepackaged product with the approval of Billy Graham that’s to be shown during church lock-ins or CYO meet-ups. Tt’s a decent film, and if the person watching does not find the sign of the Cross revolting, he will enjoy it. But maybe that is why this film was lampooned, because modern critics do find the sign of the Cross revolting. The idea of a Christian man renewing his faith and fighting off evil is not a fashionable idea these days, rather the modern critic will give praise and applause to Leviathan: a film about a man who loses everything he found dear, and is sent to prison for a murder he did not commit, or Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: a four-hour work about a woman’s sexual exploits and her nymphomania, which ends with am an attempting to rape her (and let us not even talk about his prior work, Anti-Christ).
Yet this simple film, that tells a simple story about a man who regains his faith, is apparently distasteful. This is not an awful movie, and the average person who sees it will like it. He won’t find it to be worthy of accolade, nor will he believe to be an artistic masterpiece, but he will enjoy it. He possibly might even feel a sense of warmth or triumph in the message of the film: that Christ conquers all that evil can never win, and of all the different messages and themes that Hollywood will tell, from the completely nonsensical to the extremely perverse, the feeling and message of The Rite is not a bad one at all.