faith fridays: patti armstrong’s review of ‘the rite’

Patti Maguire Armstrong

On Monday, I mentioned my fellow mother-writer-faith sister, Patti Armstrong, Bismarck, ND, sharing how she’d had a chance to hang out with actor Anthony Hopkins a few weeks back in anticipation of his latest film, The Rite. The film follows the true story of a priest who performs exorcisms. Patti was part of a press junket — a small group of press representatives — who got to talk with all of the actors and others who took part in the film.

After interviewing Patti on Real Presence Radio on Monday, I decided to share more on this topic, which I consider a faith issue that has great relevance to our modern-day lives. A friend of mind who spent a decade as an agnostic recently shared this with me regarding her return to Faith:

“Once I had accepted the fact that evil was an active force in our world and in the human heart, I was much more open to the reality of an opposing, good force.”

Interesting, huh? Not that I want to focus on evil — of course not. And neither does Patti. But failure to recognize that evil exists, and is a real and formidable foe (though not equal to God and His might) has the potential to lead us away from God. Patti shared with me on radio that evil inevitably compels us back into the loving arms of an all-loving God. And every Sunday at Mass, and in churches of many different denominations across the world, we say, “Deliver us from evil,” and there’s a reason we do.

The Rite Stuff by Patti Maguire Armstrong

There will be two kinds of people who go see the movie, The Rite, Warner Brothers’ supernatural thriller about demonic possession; those who believe and those who do not.  But as Fr. Lucas warned his seminarian apprentice, “Choosing NOT to believe in the Devil won’t protect you from him.”  And that is ultimately what the movie is about — faith or lack thereof.

The Rite opens in theaters January 28. It is loosely based on true events chronicled in the book, The Rite; The Making of a Modern Exorcist, by journalist Matt Baglio, who followed the training of Fr. Gary Thomas in Rome to become an exorcist for his diocese in the United States.  Fr. Gary was ordained in 1983 but his character is depicted by seminary student Michael Kovak, played by Colin O’Donoghue, who makes his screen debut. Michael feels called to the priesthood but becomes haunted by doubt. His skepticism leads his superiors to team him with Fr. Lucas, an unconventional exorcist played by Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins

When Michael witnesses behaviors during exorcisms such as guttural voices, knowing the unknown, speaking in languages the person never learned, vomiting nails, trances and bizarre physical contortions, he refuses to believe demonic forces are responsible. He befriends Angeline, a journalist played by Brazilian actress Alice Braga, who is intrigued by the phenomena of exorcism.  Her own interest is compelled by a brother who was insane, or perhaps possessed, who committed suicide. Together they confront their own demons, so to speak, as the veil between dimensions is ripped away.

Keeping it Real

Hollywood’s seeming obsession with exorcism was first born in 1968 with the movie Rosemary’s Baby, followed five years later by The Exorcist. Others followed but The Rite sets itself apart with a soul for realism. Yes, realism.

It was just such a revelation that leading man O’Donoghue said challenged his own beliefs.  He explained during a press conference following the premiere showing of the movie in Los Angeles, “I didn’t think it was going to be so intense.”   While on location in Rome, O’Donoghue and director Mikael Hafstrom spent time in the waiting room of an exorcist, sometimes hearing banging, strange voices, and crying on the other side of the door.

Later, on the movie set, after working on the most intense exorcism scene, O’Donoghue said he approached Fr. Gary. “I said to him, ‘Well this must be quite a Hollywood version of it, right?’ but Fr. Gary said, ‘No, everything that happened here, I’ve seen.’”

In spite of being a practicing Catholic from Ireland, like the character he plays, O’Donoghue said he had doubts about the authenticity of exorcisms. “I’m more convinced now,” he said. “When I was talking to Fr. Gary and another exorcist I met, they didn’t try to convince me of anything. To them it’s real and their ‘take it or leave it’ attitude makes it more believable to me.”  O’Donoghue said his Catholic relatives need no convincing and thus, are not even sure if they will see the movie. “My grandmother said, ‘We’re delighted for you, but I don’t think I’ll see it.’”

It was Warner Brothers’ commitment to realism that convinced Fr. Gary to sign off on his character and work as an advisor.  When Fr. Gary was first approached, he was the skeptic.  “I don’t trust you,” he told the producer. “Your industry hates the Catholic Church.” He finally signed a contract but only after seven rewrites, restrictions placed on his character and the requirement that Catholic teaching be accurate.

Anthony Hopkins

On the set, Fr. Gary helped coach Anthony Hopkins, who plays the unorthodox Fr Lucas, representing Fr. Gary’s mentor in Rome. “Hopkins was perfect for this role,” Fr. Gary said. “He gives off a presence of awe and even looks a little like Fr. Carmine.”

Hopkins said, “This role really did grab me; I never played a priest before.”  However, he admitted that initially, he was put off by it. “I thought, oh, I don’t want to do another creepy movie. But my agent said, ‘You really ought to read it.’  I read it and told him, ‘Yeah, I nearly missed it.  It’s a really good script; excellent.’”

Hopkins said that playing this character touched him on a spiritual level. “Fr. Lucas begins to wonder, what is the truth? He opens himself up to something in his own soul that he hadn’t thought about.” Hopkins said that he does not believe that people should ever think they have completely found the truth.  “Personally, I don’t believe in certainty,” he said. “I’m going to question the existence of everything.”  He did however admit to feeling certain about one thing: God. “I was an atheist over thirty years ago. I came into a context in my life that made me know without any doubt that I’m not enough; that there’s something much bigger than myself,” Hopkins said. “It changed my whole life.”

While Hopkins is hesitant to lay claim to specific religious beliefs, he said he respects the beliefs of others.  “I stay open and become informed as an actor.  I think that is why I felt challenged by this part.”

Mutual Respect

The feeling of respect for the beliefs of others permeated the movie set, according to all the participants. Swedish born director, Mikael Hafstrom, is from a Jewish and Protestant background but said, “I believe in believing and I respect other people’s way of finding inner peace.”

Screenwriter, Michael Petroni, who recently co-wrote The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, admitted that the subject matter was hard to shake off at the end of the day. “It definitely followed me home,” he said. “My wife was pregnant with our child and I was highly conscious of what was happening in my own home at the time. It is my nature to be interested in the spiritual side of life.” For Petroni, the movie was not just a story.  “It’s a presentation of a subject matter. If it creates a debate, that’s a good thing.”

The Rite is rated PG13. It has no blood or gore except for some blood in one possession scene. There are four profane words used by the demon during an exorcism.  Given the religious content, it is getting the attention of people who don’t ordinarily watch scary movies. If the devil scares you, then expect to be scared.  However, Fr. Gary sees The Rite as more than just a scary movie. On the last day on the movie set, he prayed with five of the actors and blessed them. Fr. Gary described the whole experience as fun but stated that for him, the greatest value is to get the message out that God is more powerful than the devil.

He said, “We should never fear this. What are you worried about? God is more powerful.  If there is a devil, there is a God and they are not equal.”

Patti Maguire Armstrong is the mother of ten children including two Kenyan AIDS orphans. She is a speaker and the author of Catholic Truths for Our Children: A Parent’s Guide (Scepter) Stories for the Homeschool Heart and also the children’s book, Dear God, I Don’t Get It!” (Bezalel). She was  the managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Gracebook series. Her website is

Q4U: Any questions for Patti? I’ll try to finagle her into coming back to answer!