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The Rite: A Brief Movie Review

12 Feb

***Near-spoiler Alert***

This is a movie review.  If you are the type of person who gets easily angered by movie spoilers, near-spoilers, or anything that could potentially be considered a spoiler, please click somewhere else now.  Or go make yourself some hot chocolate.  Or I hear there are some adorable videos of kittens playing the piano over on YouTube.

I was very much looking forward to seeing The Rite.  I cannot resist spooky movies, especially the kind filled with creepy, Catholic hoo-hah.  Also upping the creep factor?  Sir Anthony Hopkins.  He plays an unorthodox Catholic priest who specializes in exorcisms. That is literally as much as I knew about the film before sitting down in the movie theater a few hours ago.  What I found so intriguing about The Rite is that from the previews it appeared to have a slightly skeptical flavor to it.  I had heard that Sir Hopkins himself is a doubter who was quoted in an interview as saying, “Our existence is beyond our explanation, whether we believe in God or we have religion or we’re atheist. Our existence is beyond our understanding. No one has an answer.”

Creepiness.  Acting talent.  Doubt.  All fine ingredients for the making of a great movie where religion is front and center.

In the film. a young man with a troubled homelife seeks the priesthood to get away.  After four years in seminary, he finds himself in Rome at what basically amounts to an exorcism retreat.  After expressing his doubt in the existence of demons, devils and gods to the head dress-wearing priest dude, he gets sent to observe Father Sir Hopkins perform an exorcism for “proof.”  Like a good skeptic, the troubled young priest thinks the subject of the exorcism would be better served by medical science.

However, the tables are soon turned when the doubter finds himself experiencing the supernatural firsthand. Father Sir Hopkins cautions him that, “choosing not to believe in the devil will not protect you from him.” The young man is faced with a choice: continue in his disbelief or turn to god.

The majority of the film is beautifully set against the backdrop of Rome. It is well shot and visually stunning.  Also, the acting talent assembled for this film is top notch.  It should go without saying that Sir Hopkins is absolutely convincing in his role as the elderly Jesuit exorcist.

Unfortunately, that is where my praise of this film ends.  What begins as a promising film about the intersection of faith and skepticism morphs into something else entirely.  By the end, I realized I had just watched a 114-minute long advertisement for belief.  The young apprentice exorcist provides the only skepticism in the entire movie and he ends up being totally wrong.  Please don’t mistake me, I’m not disappointed in the film because the demons end up being real and the skeptic ends up having to revise his point of view.  That is precisely what any good skeptic should do when presented with overwhelming evidence.  The real trouble occurs when doubter-priest finally accepts that god and demons are real and is immediately granted the power to cast out the nasty demons thereby saving the day.  I slowly came to the painful realization that the whole point of the film is that faith saves you where science and medicine cannot. And everybody duck because there goes my extra-large soda at the screen.

It didn’t even deliver the anticipated creepiness that I had hoped for.  The demonic possessions were pretty standard fare.  Strange, growling voices speaking Latin.  Unnatural body contortions.  Black eyes and disgusting “demon” skin.  Frankly, the most unsettling part of the entire film is a scene where Sir Hopkins is shirtless.

And speaking of Sir Hopkins, I thought he was a skeptic and a doubter.  I want to invite him over for tea, bake him some cupcakes, sit down on his lap and sweetly ask him what in the burning hell he was thinking. As a skeptic, I couldn’t imagine signing on to a project where the message is so anti-skepticism.  Even if that was not the writers’ intention, the end result is:

  1. Faith gives you automatic superpowers.  Just believe!
  2. If you are experiencing voices, disorientation, hallucinations, or skin rashes do not waste your time going to see silly doctors.  You’d better call in a priest.
  3. Doubting, questioning and critical thinking will cause you pain and confusion.

In spite of Sir Hopkins, The Rite is a faith-filled flop.  The tag line from the movie poster summarizes it adequately:  You Can Only Defeat It When You Believe.

Ghosts, Aliens and Monsters! Oh my!

21 Nov

I had the dubious honor of attending and graduating from two religious institutions.  I completed my undergraduate education at a small, protestant liberal arts school in Texas and then did my graduate studies at a Catholic (Jesuit) school in Wisconsin.  All snark aside, I had excellent, life-shaping experiences at both schools and wouldn’t trade my education for anything.  Okay, I studied history so maybe I would trade my formal education for a time machine but beyond that I value my education and credit it with shaping who I am today.

What with me spending six consecutive years in private, religious institutions and all, you would think I would have become more religious.  For awhile that was the case.  However, after my deconversion I looked back on my education and identified a few highly enlightened people who helped put me on the path to critical thinking.  I think this is a fairly common phenomenon for atheists who grew up religious.  We look back and go “How did I get this way?”

One moment that stands out for me now is a course I took my senior year of undergrad.  It was enticingly titled Ghosts, Aliens and Monsters.  It was a communications course and I was looking for a few extra credits and basically an easy A on my way out the door.  My academic advisor, knowing my devotion to The X-Files, recommended I take this course.

I am so glad I did.  It wasn’t about The X-Files at all (surprise, surprise).  It was a course in skepticism lovingly cloaked in creative writing exercises and reading assignments that kept me awake at night with their dark creepiness.  Alien abductions, account after account after account, until I began to doubt my doubt.  For months, Nessie and Bigfoot and all their cryptid friends haunted my dreams.  I was obsessed with ghost photography and spent hours combing the interwebs for convincing evidence of an afterlife.  Underneath the creep-fest, however, was a running theme of skepticism.  What of these ghost, aliens, and monster stories do we believe?  And if we say we believe them, WHY?  What reason do we give for accepting some and rejecting others?  And above all, how do people communicate truth?

It was challenging and more fun than I deserved my senior year.  The crown jewel of the course was a writing assignment at the end of the semester where we had to outline our unified theory of belief.  If we believed in god, but not ghosts, aliens or monsters then we had to specify what criteria our belief or rejection was based on. I remember this being an uncomfortable exercise for me.  Because I was a god believer, I wanted my belief criteria to be inclusive enough for god but exclusive of the crazy stuff like ghosts and aliens.  I can’t find the paper I wrote (I think it was saved on one of those old 3 1/2 inch disks that no one uses anymore), but I don’t recall feeling good about that paper.  I remained religious for years and years after this course, but it was an important stepping stone.  What the course did for me was expose a weakness in my faith.  It put my invisible friend squarely in the category with the other supernatural stuff that I simply could not justify belief in.

So, what criteria do I use now to determine what is believable and what isn’t?  Well, for one, I don’t really like the word belief anymore.  I would much rather accept ideas based on evidence than believe.  The world looks different to me now (and better, I think).  Like when you realized your Mom and Dad really were Santa Claus and the world suddenly made a little more sense.  Years after taking Ghosts, Aliens and Monsters, I would pick up Richard Dawkins for the first time and read the following words: “Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know?  How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the sun and are very far away?  And how do we know that Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the sun?   The answer to these questions is evidence.” (Good and Bad Reasons for Believing, Richard Dawkins).

What criteria for belief have you established for yourself?  Feel free to discuss in the comments….

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