The Rite: The Devil is Back and He’s Still Mad

The devil returns to the silver screen this week with the opening of director Mikael Hafstrom’s “The Rite”, based on journalist Matt Baglio’s 2009  book “The Rite: the Making of a Modern Exorcist.”

Baglio’s book explores the current reality of Satanic activity in our day and follows the training of Father Gary Thomas of the Diocese of San Jose, CA, as an exorcist in 2007 during a course at the Regina Apostolorum University in Rome. Both witnessed exorcisms during this time. In an interview this week, Fr. Gary told me that the actors rendering of satanic possession in the film are indeed authentic.

Pope John Paul II revised the rite of exorcism in 1998 “De Exorcismus et supplicationibus quibusdam” (Concerning Exorcisms and Certain Supplications), however, the original rite has been in existence since 1614. One major difference, according to John Allen, writing in the National Catholic Reporter in September 2000, some of the more colorful descriptions of the devil were removed in keeping with ecclesial teaching that Satan is “a spirit without body, without color and without odor.”

Allen notes that the document states that exorcists “must not consider people to be vexed by demons who are suffering above all from some psychic illness” and wants exorcists to ascertain the difference between diabolic possession and those who are “victims of imagination.”

“The Rite” is produced by Beau Flynn and Tripp Vinson, who also produced the 2005 box office hit “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” which I reviewed for The Tidings as an example of theological horror.

With “The Rite”, however,  the screenwriter, Michael Petroni, who has a list of religious themed films to his credit, and the filmmakers, focus on the a man’s faith journey as revealed when he deals with the devil. This new film is a fictional look at the experience of the exorcist, rather than the possessed.

Recently ordained to the transitional deaconate, Michael Kovak (newcomer Colin O’Donoghue) has a crisis of faith. He emails a letter of resignation to the head of the seminary, Father Matthew (Toby Jones), who sees Michael’s doubts as a sign of faith, rather than a lack thereof. He suggests that Michael go to Rome to take part in a  course in how to become an exorcist. Michael, the son of an undertaker, has a sense of the supernatural from growing up so close to death, including the loss of his dear mother when he was a boy. Skeptical, he heads to Rome.

Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds) notes Michael’s doubts, even about the existence of the devil, and sends him to visit a priest, who has been an exorcist for decades, Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins). Father, also a physician, carries our exorcism in his residence and he makes house calls.  It is required that a physician be present for all exorcisms.

A young woman, Rosaria (Marta Gastini) is pregnant with her father’s child and has been judged to be possessed. Michael questions whether Rosaria is suffering from trauma from the rape or really possessed. One of the demons answers that he entered her through the father’s semen. Fr. Lucas demands to know the names of the demons that possess the girl so he can command them in the name of Christ to depart. There is a terrible struggle. Michael is deeply impressed, but not quite convinced.

But this is what the devil wants, Fr. Lucas explains to him. The devil’s greatest pleasure, and power, comes when someone denies his existence.

They visit a young boy who is tormented externally by the devil; the hoof prints of a mule are all over his body and he has visions of them in his dreams. Lucas accuses the mother of beating her son, but she denies it. This is the exorcist’s way of determining, and eliminating, all other explanations, including psychological, for the terrifying phenomena these victims experience. Lucas is following the new rite of exorcism.

Michael must face the paradoxical dilemma of what he experiences, what he knows, and what he believes. He is on a faith journey that includes more than belief in the demonic. He struggles with the reality of the existence of Satan. This gets played out at the café he frequents when he meets with a female journalist is called “Il Sogno” – meaning “the dream” in Italian. Perhaps Angeline (Alice Braga), who is also taking the course to investigate demonic possession, is also part of a dream that Michael must address.

Above all the young man grapples with what Fr. Lucas keeps repeating: to disbelieve the devil is what the devil wants. C.S. Lewis, writing in “The Screwtape Letters”  (1942), states this well: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our 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.”

Layered upon Michael’s interior state is what he witnesses regarding Satan and Fr. Lucas; we are all vulnerable when it comes to the devil and his minions. Yet, we are strengthened and protected by prayer and the symbols of our faith, in particular the Creed, the invocation of the Holy Trinity, the name of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Litany of the Saints, and the power of sacramentals, such as the crucifix. The film showcases this quite well.

Film, as we know, has a sacramental quality in that it is the external manifestation of the inner realities of the characters. So “The Rite” uses reptiles, a mule with glowing red eyes, and contortions of the possessed to show us the reality of the evil works of the devil that we cannot see. “The Rite” is not a remake of “The Exorcist” or any other film about exorcism that I have seen. It does give a nod to “The Exorcist” when Fr. Lucas says to Michael, “What did you think? That is about twisted heads and pea soup?”

At one point a woman is run down by a car and it seems that the deacon Michael gives her absolution, however, he does not. His words are about faith and forgiveness. I think this was actually a strong moment in the film. I also liked the subtle and intuitive way the film grasps the essence of what ritual means for humans. At one point, Michael is walking through Rome, lonely and rather downcast, when he sees the golden arches of McDonalds in the distance. As anyone who has traveled abroad knows, seeing familiar signs and food in a foreign land, is a source of comfort. The Rite of Exorcism, as all rites of the Church, is a source of grace and comfort.

That Rosaria, the pregnant girl, is a victim of incest, is noteworthy, too. The violation of persons through sexual attacks is endemic in our culture, and equating it with diabolical evil is more than appropriate.

Names are important in the film. The exorcist, Fr. Lucas explains, first demands to know the name of the demon(s), because once the name is known, the exorcist can have power over it. The name of the deacon is Michael and the Archangel Michael is the traditional foe of the devil and his name invoked to intercede and protect one from the wiles of the devil; the journalist’s name is Angelina, or “little angel”. She supports Michael at the most dramatic part of the film during an exorcism.

My one complaint about the film is the lack of clarity about deacons and priests. Although Father Thomas, whose story inspired this fictional tale, was a consultant to the film, neither the writer nor producers were able to grasp the difference between deacons and priests, equating ordination with first vows and final vows, as if the men were in religious orders rather than the diocesan priesthood. Also, there is an overuse of the image of the rosary in the film, though it was a way to show the crucifix throughout. I would also have like to have seen the celebration of the Eucharist somewhere in the film but I had to leave it to my Catholic imagination.

However I might find these bothersome, Fr. Gary Thomas told me just last night at the after party for the film’s premiere that these points did not bother him at all. In fact, most viewers would not notice them, especially if they are not Catholic.

Hans-Jurgen Feulner, professor of Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology at the University of Vienna, attended the same screening as I. “Liturgically and ritually I find ‘The Exorcist’ somehow better and more authentic, but theologically I think ‘The Rite’ is a great movie.”

“The Rite” is theological and supernatural horror because it is faith seeking understanding in terrifying and inexplicable circumstances. It is deeply Catholic in its sensibilities, though I think all believers will find it interesting.  It also attempts to teach the audience that though the Church believes in Satan, it continually tests those who claim the devil dwells within them. Exorcism is a last resort to treating the disorders that people think are satanic. New norms and protocols were also necessary to ascertain that people did not get hurt, or die, as a result of an exorcist’s over zealous actions; Matt Baglio’s book describes some of these events though they are only alluded to in the film.

Exorcism, or the discernment of whether an exorcism is called for, is ultimately about healing and the relief of suffering, as Fr. Gary explained to me. He also said that the Cross is the most powerful symbol that we have; it is through the Cross, the Paschal Mystery, that Satan is conquered, though he will not be gone until the Second Coming of Christ.

I did not find Michael’s journey as emotionally charged as it might have been. It is more of an honest intellectual inquiry where he learns to trust his heart and find meaning in his experiences. Just as St. Thomas Aquinas never met a question he feared, neither does Michael fear to ask them. However, Fr. Gary said last night that he has seen the film several times, and for the first time last night, he did not cry. As I pondered this on the way home, I thought that the pastoral work of the exorcist must take up all of a person’s physical and spiritual energy as empathy for victims, whether possessed or not, are suffering. To give oneself in this ministry appears to be one of the most generous decisions a priest, and physicians, therapists, and those who pray for deliverance, can make.

Some scenes are quite frightening; the camera work is up close and personal. (I had my little bottle of Lourdes water in my bag for good measure.) Yet more than panic, I found myself examining the paradoxes and layers of meaning in the film. Is this of God, or not? Is this of the devil, or not? How can one be sure? Honest inquiry, a lively faith, and passionate prayer.

This is a both/and situation, I think. I saw the film and you can be sure the next time I renew my Baptismal promises with the congregation at our local parish during Mass when baptisms are celebrated each month, I will be rejecting Satan and all his empty promises with all the energy and fervor I can muster. I will also pray for all those who are burdened, that they may be delivered through the grace of the Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. This is not a selfless prayer, for in so doing, I will be praying for myself as well.







  1. Great, thorough, entertaining review, Sr. Rose! I’m looking forward to seeing this film. Hopefully it’ll do some good things in the hearts and minds of many people.

  2. Thilm is out this weekend in the UK and I am looking forward to seeing it. I hope it will bring many (back) to the Catholic Faith. Having a Welshman play the lead role as a Catholic Priest is also a joy for us in Wales. I hope it makes more Welshmen think of the Faith of their Fathers and the Masses they celebrated for centuries before the Saxons were converted, and even before the Welshman St patrick converted the Irish! sad to say Catholicism isn’t seen as a integral part of being Welsh today. 😦

  3. The film is really interesting. From a production and acting point of view, it is excellent. The topic, however, is disturbing, especially in the 21st century. It is incredible how superstition and the fears of primitive people still beset us. This is exactly the sort of doctrine perpetuated by the Catholic Church (and later adopted by other denominations too) to hold the masses in its strangle hold. One can only wonder how many people will be affected by this film: how many will feel that they are ‘possessed’, and how many will be ‘diagnosed’ as being ‘possessed’ as a result?
    It is sad that so many people have and will be plagued by the idea of demon possession. The devil exists only because we have created the illusion. A little bottle of Lourdes holy water won’t keep the devil away. What is needed rather is an expulsion of superstition. This is the demon we need exorcised. This is true freedom.

  4. Hi sister Rose,
    i wrote from Italy, and actually here the small numbers of exorcist that are able to practice their gift are not well seeing from the local cattolic autority, and for the most of the time bishops triy to drive away the people from this kind of priest, often sending this exorcists far away from in the major cities or asking to not join the celebration in the central churches to make them hide from the eyes of the people; people that in theese times needs to get closer to God and closer to the church insted join new age and occultis practice, but actually I think that for the most the cattolic autorities neither believe themselves to satan. And honestly i am speaching this word because i know this world, and my voice came from inside.
    Of course we need to be very carefull before acting in the exorcism sense but we can’t deny that the devil exist and he works a lot to bring people to his world.
    this is just what i think, thank you for your interesting rewiew about this movie and if you can i have a question: may I know if the character of Fr Lucas Trevant corresponding with a real esisting person?except from the possession it seem to be fr Amorth but maybe i am doing a mistake.
    thank you a lot

  5. Did you read the book “The Rite” by Matt Baglio? I think he would agree with some of what you say here.

  6. Read the book (THE RITE by Matt Baglio) on which the film is based and you will see that your ideas need refreshing. The Church is very hesitant when it comes to acknowledging demonic possession and has strict criteria to discern possession vis-a-vis illnesses or conditions.

  7. Why did you give this advise to the people? Have you rights in this book?. How do you know that people hadn´t read the book?. And, Since when has church that hability to discern such kind of illness?. Sincerely, a believer doctor its not enough for me.

  8. Well, Carmen, I am not sure what your point is here. If you could clarify what you mean. You seem upset but I am not sure why. For example, I do not give advice. Jesus performed exorcisms in the Gospels and the Roman Catholic Church has had a ritual for exorcism since the 1700’s. Matt Baglio’s book is very accurate and gives the history of exorcism in his book.

  9. Hello.

    My point was to share my thoughts when i saw people giving you their opinions about the film and the story, and you answered “read the book…”. That´s all.

    Obviously, you love the book, but the post seemed about the film to me, not the book.

    (By the way, i don´t believe in demonic possessions at all, neither about the devil existence. Things happens to people that can´t be explained or treated by doctors and, in the while, it´s better for me to work looking for a rational explanation and a cure for the disease if possible.)

    All actors and actresses in the movie were fantastic for me but the director rushed in to the end, without enough explanation about the reborn of the Michael´s Kovac faith.

    I don´t like the repeating of the same scenes, over and over again, like the one that shows Michael´s mother givin him the card of an angel with a child or, Why is necessary so many scenes about the wristlet? . I prefer those films in which the director treats the public as an intelligent persons.

    Thank you for your site.

  10. Cordial saludo Carmen, solo te puedo decir que; el hecho de que tu no creas, no quiere decir que no exista el demonio, muy respetable tu opinión pero muy ” reaccionaria y mecánica” a los tiempos actuales.
    De todas formas es tu opinión.

  11. Dear Sr. Rose: I found Jesus through the Catholic church when I was 10 years old. Through the years, there have been times I doubted the existence of the devil, and stuggled with my faith. However, in the movie (I have not read the book, yet), the character of Fr. Lucas Trevant made a statement that really “yanked” my faith back into the light, when he explained to Fr. Kovak that (paraphrasing here) “proof of the devil’s existence is denial that the devil exists.” There was another strong point declared by Fr. Kovak during his discussion with Fr. Trevant that equally put a chokehold on this point. But I digress.

    I watched this movie three times yesterday afternoon, back-to-back. I was keenly interested in the comparison of mental illness and its importance and significance in the topic of demonic possession. Even the movie “Stigmata” did not touch in depth the potential psychological status of the afflicted character , played by Patrica Arquette.

    I vasilate between the devil being the dark nature of humanity vs. an entity. My occupation revealed the darkest of human nature. I believe, however, that this is a separate issue than the existence of demons.

    I am sure that through my life I will always have the curiosity to question; however, I am doing so with my Lord and Savior’s hand firmly on my shoulder as He and I walk through the journey of the rest of my life.

    Thank you for allowing everyone a platform on which to express their opinions.

    God bless you and keep you in His light.


  12. Be assured of my prayers. If you go through my blog you will see and entry about my understanding of the Cross that came from this film. Grace is everywhere.
    Thank you!

  13. Thank you, Carmen. I like it when people really “get into” a film and everyone’s interpretation is valid. The repetition of visuals as a motif is common in filmmaking. Some directors use the technique better than others. Actually, I thought it created ambiguity about the devil’s influence. Whether this helped the film or not is up for grabs, however. I am still unsure about where you are getting the idea of me “loving” the book; I have not even finished reading it! But it is the source material for the film and that’s a fact.

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