“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I
appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will
last, so that the Father will give you whatever you
ask him in my name.”
A priest quotes Jesus’ Upper Room words at the graduation ceremony for a group of Catholic seminar ians. We might well question why he made the choices that he did—none of his close followers com ing from the religious establishment. Instead, they had been fishermen, a tax collector, and two apparent members of the underground movement against the Romans. Not very promising material. The same might apply also to the protagonist of director Mikael Håfström’s film. Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) is one of the seminary graduates, and not a very promising one at that. In fact, if he has his way, he is about to break a promise.
Michael had wanted to escape from his mortician father who sees for his son only two life choices—follow him into the funeral business, or become a priest. And so it is more to escape than out any sense of calling that the young man enrolls in the seminary where the tuition for future priests is paid for by a scholarship.
Right after graduating, he emails his resignation, but his mentor Father Matthew (Toby Jones) does not forward it, instead talking with the young man in an attempt to convince him to stay for ordination. However, Michael is not a believer. He is drawn up short, however, when he learns that he would be liable for the hundred thousand dollars cost of his education if he does not enter the priesthood. Then comes the night when Fr. Matthew calls after Michael as the latter is leaving the campus, but the seminarian keeps walking across the street. The priest trips and falls. A woman biker swerves to avoid running into him, and she is hit by a van. As she lies dying in the street Michael rushes up and kneels beside her. She pleads for absolution so fervently that he pronounces the Last Rite, his compassion so overcoming his doubts that she dies at peace with herself and God.
Witnessing the scene, Fr. Matthew is even more convinced that Michael has a calling. Very reluctantly the young man agrees to postpone his decision and accept an assignment to go to Rome and join a special class of priests and nuns, the subject being exorcism. There has been such a large increase in requests for exorcisms that the Vatican is asking every diocese to train and assign a staff member to become an exorcist.
Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds), the teacher, uses slides and video clips to introduce the students to the subject. Soon the rationalist Michael is challenging him by suggesting that the victims would be better helped by a psychiatrist than a priest. Fr. Xavier agrees that some of what we call the mentally ill need such help, but that there are differences between schizophrenia and demon possession, ones that an experienced exorcist can recognize.
The teacher sends the skeptical student to Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), who turns out to be both brusque and compassionate. A mother comes to him with her pregnant daughter Rosaria (Marta Gastini), the latter whom has become demon possessed. Michael is pressed into service to help hold her down during the rite, the woman screaming obscenities as Fr. Lucas strives to cast out the intruder. It seems that learning the demon’s name is an important part of the process, the priest in this and subsequent treatments demanding that the intruder reveal this. Also, the priest has a closed paper bag that he asks the demon to reveal the contents, if he is indeed a demon. (In subsequent encounters the demon will display knowledge of things that only a spiritual creature could know about.) The poor woman contorts her body, screaming and cursing all the while, but Fr. Lucas at last is able to bring peace to her. But it is only temporary, with the demon returning later on and further struggles required.
After this first encounter, when the two men talk, there is a delightful reference to the granddaddy of this genre The Exorcist, the priest saying to Michael, “What did you expect? Spinning heads? Pea soup?” The young man reveals his lack of faith—and is surprised when the priest replies, “Be friends with your doubts, because those are the things that will drive you on.” The old priest adds, “At times I’ve experienced total loss of faith—day, months when I don’t know what the hell I believe in—God or the devil, Santa Claus or Tinker Bell. Yet there’s something that keeps digging and scraping away inside of me. Seems like God’s fingernail. And finally, I can take no more of the pain and I get shoved out from the darkness into the light.” Thus we see a major theme of this film is the struggle between darkness and light. Michael often looks at a folded holy card he has saved: an angel is on one side, and on the other a note, “You are not alone. He will be with you.” Michael, although at the time not accepting divine companionship, is not alone. Not only does he have Fr. Lucas, and to a lesser extent Fr. Xavier and Fr, Matthew rooting for him, but one of his fellow class members is Angeline (Alice Braga), whom he meets with several times. She is a journalist assigned to join the class in order to write about the Vatican’s program of dealing with exorcism. At one crucial moment she will cry to Michael that he cannot prevail against the darkness alone, that he needs divine help. (To the film’s credit, there is no hint of a romance developing between the two.)
But this is getting ahead of the story, the details of which I do not want to give for fear of ruining the film for you. Let me just say that the plot twist raises the question of, what if, in Jesus time when he enjoined his disciples to drive out demons, the latter decided to invade and take over Peter or one of the other disciples? (I single out the Rock because at one point Jesus does say to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” )
The film is filled with tragedy and triumph, of darkness and light—and, I believe, far better than those critics who gave it a grade of C and even D. It raises issues of faith and doubt, of good and evil, and of whether evil takes on personal form. I suspect that many of you readers are like myself, partially skeptical or wholly agnostic in regard to the Devil and demons. This belief has caused so much mischief in the history of the church! In preparation for the film I found myself rereading C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a book revealing that great writer’s belief in the presence of demons seeking to lead believers astray. For Lewis demons are far more subtle today, and in one letter Screwtape mentions that at one time people believed in real demons, and thus were more subject to fear, but that now, not believing in them, people are less on their guard and more subject to being lead astray by the tempter injecting subtle thoughts into their minds. (Hmm, sounds a little bit like Inception, doesn’t it?) Anyway, this is a film I recommend as a far better film than secular critics have recognized, one that raises important theological issues in a non-exploitive way. If you appreciated the fine The Exorcism of Emily Rose, you will enjoy this one, too—and find it useful to discuss with a group.
There are definitely spoilers below, so do not read beyond question 5 if you have not seen the film.
1. What do you think of Michael in the early part of the film? Of his means of acquiring a college education? What does he seem to think of his father? How is this father/son relationship a
nd important but underlying theme in the film?
2. What seems to have been Michael’s relationship with his mother? How do we see her influence throughout the film? Were you wondering at first about the angel card that we kept seeing? How are the frequent flashbacks to Michael’s boyhood an important device for our understanding of Michael?
3. What do you think Fr. Matthew sees in the skeptical Michael? How is this similar to Jesus and what he apparently saw in the unlikely men he called to follow him?
4. What do the filmmakers apparently believe concerning the existence of demons? What do you believe? How can belief in demons be detrimental (think of the history of the church)? And yet, as C.S. Lewis suggest, how can unbelief in them also be detrimental? (A rereading of his classic is called for here.)
5. What do you think of Father Xavier? How is he both a rationalist, accepting of modern science, and yet also maintaining traditional beliefs?
6. Describe Father Lucas? Not the most orderly housekeeper or impeccable dresser, is he? What do we see of his compassion? How is his failure with Rosaria similar to that of the priest’s in The Exorcism of Emily Rose? (You might also reflect on the failure of the disciples in Mark 9:14-21.)
7. What do you think of Fr. Lucas’s advice about “becoming friends’ with his doubts? How is doubt almost a necessity for mature faith? Indeed, doubt, in the sense of constantly holding up for question or examination, integral to Protestantism? (An important book in the formation of my faith was The Faith to Doubt—not sure, but I think the author was M. Holmes Hartshorne.
8. Were you surprised when the plot took a turn so that the exorcist himself became demon possessed? How does this become a turning point for Michael? How is Angeline’s warning that Michael cannot prevail by himself important? How has this insight been set up by the frequent shots of the angel card and its note? What does the demon say that convinces Michael that he is real, not just a schizophrenic delusion?
9. Do you think this film will make you think more about the following verse of Martin Luther’s hymn, sung so facilely? “And though this world with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us: We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us, /The prince of darkness grim, We tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, For lo! His doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.” 10. What do you think of Angeline’s note that she includes with the copy of her article sent to Michael, “Keeping a light on the truth” ? How is this the mission of both clergy and journalists?