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The Rite

January 29, 2011

The Rite

It would seem that belief — especially religious belief — is a subtle and messy thing, despite the efforts of those who seem to want to classify it into a simple binary up-or-down vote. But surely the adherents of a religion must have this belief stuff down, no? You surely can’t be, say, a priest and harbor doubts — especially not grave ones — about your belief.

Well, unfortunately for the simplifiers that’s not strictly true. As a wiser writer than I put it, there’s a long way from “Adonai” to “I deny”, and it isn’t even a nice straight line from one to the other. In particular, there is a huge swath of modernist, intellectual Catholicism (I can already hear the screeches that this is an oxymoron and that I’m some other sort) which manages to embrace a solidly agnostic position — that theological truth is inherently unknowable — alongside faith. It’s been called the mark either of insanity or of a first-class intelligence to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. Maybe both are right, but to wave this position away as nonexistent is as insulting and dismissive as it is conveniently simple.

In either case, it’s a mark in favor of The Rite that it is comfortable living in the midst of this position. Yes, it’s an exorcism movie, and yes, that means that when it breaks it will break towards belief in the existence of demonic possession. But it spends the bulk of its time leaving those questions unresolved.

Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) is a seminarian studying for the priesthood when he experiences a serious crisis of faith. The Father Superior of his seminary pleads for him not to give up. He notices Michael’s serious demeanor and steadiness in the face of unpleasantness, both picked up working in his father’s funeral home. These, he thinks, make Michael a prime candidate for a course held at the Vatican to re-teach the rite of exorcism.

So it’s off to Rome where the instructor, Fr. Xavier (Ciarán Hinds), picks up on Michael’s doubts. He suggests Michael meet with an old friend, Fr. Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), who still conducts exorcisms in the outskirts of Rome.

Fr. Lucas is, appropriately enough, a Jesuit who has had his own spotty history with his faith. He explains of long stretches with no idea what he really believes in, stretching on and scratching at him “like God’s fingernail” inside, until he feels inexorably compelled to carry on whether he believes or not at that point.

He shows Michael the day-to-day practice of an exorcist, which is often more like that of a therapist than anything else. And it’s never clear that a therapist isn’t what these people really need. Even with his hardest case, Rosaria (Marta Gastini), there are only a couple moments that can’t be explained away as a psychotic break and some parlor tricks. But conversely, if her psychosis manifests as a belief in possession, wouldn’t the rite of exorcism work as well as many other forms of psychotherapy practiced the world over?

Of course, as such movies are bound to play out, Fr. Lucas falls victim to the very fate he struggles against, and Michael is left to come to his rescue. Hopkins really shines in these segments, drawing from the manic, over-the-top Shakespearean style on display in Titus (and that I’m hoping to see bits of in Thor) while blending it with the cunning mind-games of a Hannibal Lecter. He takes full advantage of his chance to run all up and down his range, and it’s great fun to see him at work.

For that matter, Gastini makes a great splash of her own in her American movie debut. She shows how she can take an extreme character and run with it. If she can come back and play subtler roles well, she’ll have quite a career ahead.

On the other hand, Alice Braga is more or less wasted as Angelina, an Italian journalist investigating the exorcism class. I can see the need to have someone in the role of a foil, but the character feels very weak next to Michael’s. Some gestures are made towards why she’s interested in the first place, but she never feels very fleshed-out at all.

And this points to the way the script as a whole starts strong with a great core, and then peters out into a genre exercise halfway through. But even if it ends up as a straightforward exorcism movie, it’s a very well-made one. And it does at least break some new ground at the outset, which is more than can be said for most genre movies.

Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: fail.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. Jubayer K permalink
    January 31, 2011 12:49

    Yes, it is a really funny aspect of religious belief; just how complicated a thing it can be. That is something missing from the current discourse on the subject from both sides of the extreme (to put it in binary terms, the “athiests” and the “FULL-believers”; though even that is an oversimplification). It’s weird – how do you get to communicate your feelings to a broad audience when you yourself don’t necessarily have a full handle on it? The only thing I can say (objectively) is my default position is agnostic (in the sense you mention, the question is “unknowable”)… with my luck, It decides to show up right at that moment 🙂 But it can be incredibly frustrating to explain to people who have no interest in that position. When did those of us in the “middle” become so weak? Is it a property of being in the “middle” that yours is the quietest voice in the room? Or in fact, do we need to do more to stand up and be heard? I think I’ll just go and clean the cat-litter tray now.

  2. January 31, 2011 13:09

    The most frustrating aspect of it, at least for me, is the otherwise-reasonable atheists who emphasize etymologies to argue that “atheism” includes lack of belief, which co-opts agnostics. Then when it’s convenient for them, they make more explicitly antitheistic statements under the guise of atheism, which of course now they’re imputing to all the agnostics they’ve previously co-opted.

    “Atheism”, it seems, means lack of belief when that reading is convenient, and it means disbelief when that one is.

  3. Jubayer K permalink
    January 31, 2011 17:52

    You gotta wonder whether they do that due to genuine mistake born of a mist of confusion during the heat of argument, or whether it’s simply intellectual dishonesty. I would assume the aim of both (if there is one in the former) is to collectively lump as many people on their “side” as possible.

    In any case you really have made me want to see this movie. I’m a sucker for horror movies, but there’s a puddle of drool on my desk as I write.

  4. Hunt permalink
    February 3, 2011 05:48

    Etymology may be the best way to resolve things though. “a”-“gnosis” literally means without knowledge. The agnostic position is that there isn’t enough knowledge to impart certainty. But we aren’t being that form beliefs from certainty. At some point you have to weigh the evidence as you see it and take your best shot. There is either atheist or theist, “there is no try,” as Yoda would put it. As an atheist, there is not way I can disprove God with absolute certainty. There is no way I can prove that Russell’s teapot is not in orbit out by Jupiter either. I suppose it will some day be logically and scientifically possible to make a firm assertion about God, just as it may some day be possible to resolve the teapot using extremely precise radar, or to say that if it were there, we would have detected it. But we’re not there yet.

  5. Hunt permalink
    February 3, 2011 05:53

    I think the reason why this is a hot topic, and why we can expect more movies like this, is that we actually are in the process of witnessing the birth of an atheist movement, with startlingly similar lines drawn from the gay and lesbian movement.

  6. February 3, 2011 08:33

    I disagree, Hunt. I refuse to reduce the question to a simplistic binary. I also see the difference between “knowledge” and “belief”.

    Oh, and I love how you run roughshod over the position clearly stated above: When I say “agnostic”, I mean the position that the question is not “knowable”, and that has nothing to do with certainty. However, you feel that it’s within your rights to redefine my words, and then use those against me. This is exactly the insulting and dismissive attitude that I deplore.

  7. Hunt permalink
    February 3, 2011 18:01

    Let me restate my position, and then you can tell me if you still think I’m trying to insult you. I’m questioning the doxastic state of agnosticism as it was originally defined by Huxley, and specifically not the pop usage like “I’m agnostic about feminism.” In particular, is it really possible that a person can have no belief, the lack of an opinion, about something as fundamental as whether God exists? Let’s just say I’m doubtful, and my doubt has been anecdotally confirmed on more that one occasion when people who clearly held Christian opinions, but claimed agnosticism, converted.

  8. Hunt permalink
    February 3, 2011 18:03

    Or, I’m agnostic on agnosticism.

  9. February 3, 2011 18:12

    Oh, I don’t think you’re trying to be insulting. It’s an epiphenomenon of carelessness.

    What you are still doing is blithely ignoring what I have now twice stated explicitly to be what I mean by the agnostic position. To rephrase your position: “I don’t care what you mean by that word. I will keep telling you what I mean by that word and why I disagree with what I mean by it.”

  10. Hunt permalink
    February 4, 2011 03:35

    Well, unless you can show why your definition is better than mine, I think I have every right to speculate using it, especially considering it is in fact the standard definition for agnosticism.

    As you note, there is a difference between knowledge and belief. Here’s TH Huxley, as grabbed off the Wikipedia page for Agnosticism:


    Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle… Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.[9]

    So you can still sport the “agnostic” appellation and also support theistic or atheistic belief. You can be an agnostic atheist, or an agnostic theist. I would assert that we are all agnostics in matters like ultimate cosmic truth. Can there be pure agnostics according to the original use of the word, in relation to the Christian god? My speculation is that I doubt it. Perhaps that’s the part you find offensive because it attempts to force you into a position, like either you’re a crypto Christian or a crypto atheist, or that you’re actually deceiving yourself and if you analyzed yourself deeply enough you’d come down on one side or the other: “crap, I’m a Christian,” or “crap, I’m an atheist.”

    With respect to notions like Christianity, I still think this is largely true (and if you’re insulted, well, tough). There may be a few oddballs, but it’s generally true, if you actually understand what Christianity says in all its glory. If a person is ignorant of the tenets of Christianity I contend that they’re disqualified from this whole argument. Young children, for instance, cannot be called agnostic, atheist or theist. But if you actually understand what Christianity is asserting, you either believe it or you don’t.

  11. Hunt permalink
    February 4, 2011 03:36

    Sorry, must have missed an end tag.

  12. February 4, 2011 07:48

    Thank you, Hunt, for providing such an excellent illustration of exactly the arrogant, dismissive tone I was talking about. You don’t give a damn — no pun intended — what I have to say; you just want to use my weblog as a soapbox.

  13. February 4, 2011 07:54

    Incidentally, from the very top of the page you quote:

    Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable.

    Emphasis added to rub your nose in the point that this is exactly the use I’ve been explicitly indicating, and which you time and again run roughshod over because what I’m actually saying isn’t nearly as important as hearing yourself pontificate.

  14. Hunt permalink
    February 4, 2011 17:29

    I’ve been taking unknowable into account all along, hence my opening comment mentioning Russell’s teapot, but as I said there I disagree with making positive statements about eternal ignorance. Think about it for a second. “…but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable.” How do we know? Isn’t this a direct self-contradiction of agnosticism? It is merely an opinion, as is my opinion about agnosticism. Don’t get mad at me just because I’m blowing holes in your conception of what agnosticism is or should be.

  15. February 4, 2011 19:44

    Russell’s teapot isn’t unknowable, it’s improbably knowable.

    And I’m not mad about your opinions; you can believe whatever you like. I’m annoyed that you’ve chosen to be a parasite rather than get a place of your own.

  16. Hunt permalink
    February 5, 2011 03:26

    I can picture you as host: “you sir are a parasite; go start a party of your own if you want to share an opinion.” As it happens, I do have a blog, but seeing that you’re averse to any opinion but your own, I’m not going to share it with you for your own protection.

    Now I see why there are almost no comments here. Who the hell would want to.

  17. Hunt permalink
    February 5, 2011 03:53

    You may actually be happier if you turn commenting off entirely. That way you can enjoy the profound echoes of your own voice better.

  18. February 5, 2011 11:09

    What I’m averse to is people responding to what I say by ignoring it, repeatedly.

  19. Hunt permalink
    February 5, 2011 17:43

    Fine, let’s take a look at what you’re saying then. As I indicated above, a statement that something is unknowable is a statement of certainty, unless you’re just offering an opinion. We’re not talking about God as knowable or unknowable, we’re talking about whether the existence of God is unknowable, and that is an unwarranted assertion. The existence of God may be exactly the same type of epistemic statement as “Russell’s teapot does not exist.”

  20. Hunt permalink
    February 5, 2011 17:48

    Not to say there aren’t legitimate unknowables. I’m willing to concede that historical certainty doesn’t exist. There’s no way we’re ever going to know, say, how many people Julius Caesar killed in battle.

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