Saturday, January 29, 2011

"The Rite": A Movie Review.

"The Rite" (2011) Directed by Michael Hafstrom; written by Michael Petroni (bravo); suggested by the book by Matt Baglio; director of photography Ben Davis; edited by David Rosenbloom; music by Alex Heffes. Starring: Anthony Hopkins (Father Lucas -- Oscar worthy performance); Colin O'Donoghue (Michael Kovak); Alice Braga (Angeline); Ciaran Hinds (Father Xavier); Toby Jones (Father Mathew); Rutger Hauer (Istvan Kovak); Marta Gastini (Rosaria -- Oscar worthy debut!); and Maria Grazia Cuccinota (Aunt Andria).

"You cannot win without God."

I was fortunate to see "The Rite" on the evening of its New York premiere.

The film is subtle and theologically interesting, drawing on important twentieth-century meditations by Catholic thinkers concerning the mystery of evil. I am thinking especially of Thomas Merton, Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx, as well as others, including John Paul, II.

The script writer is also responsible for the text in the Narnia movies based on C.S. Lewis' allegory of Christianity. Mr. Lewis was a devoted Christian, a Protestant, whose concern with the problem of evil in theology is visible in works such as God in the Dock, The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, but most especially in the film of his life where Anthony Hopkins portrayed Professor Lewis, Shadowlands.

In fact, "Shadowlands" -- the earthly realm of illusions and unreality -- is where we find ourselves in "The Rite" surrounded by a "cloud of unknowing."

This identification is signaled for the audience by the name of the restaurant to which the leads are drawn: Il Sogno. ("The Dream.")

Earthly life is a dream, or an "unreal" striving for the ultimate meaning or purpose of existence, in Christian theology, which is unity with God or love.

It is love alone which defeats evil. The ability to love another person more than oneself (or as oneself) not merely brings us to God, but is God. More on this later. ("The Soldier and the Ballerina" and "Out of the Past.")

We begin our story with a young man who is directionless and skeptical, suffering from the disease of postmodernity -- nihilism -- an embrace of the nothingness that we are. Hence, the constant rain and dreary conditions that externalize a Kierkegaardian despair that defines evil in the contemporary world. Augustine reminds us that the world is "all idle talk and play and nothingness."

The West's surrender to this nothingness was a source of suffering for the Russian Nobel laureate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart: A Commencement Address Delivered at Harvard University, June 8, 1978 (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 47-51, also for his predecessor Leo Tolstoy, A Confession and Other Religious Writings (London: Penguin, 1987), pp. 81-231. (Tolstoy's writings concerning the truth in religion and interpretations of the Gospel story are highly recommended.)

Michael Kovaks seeks to escape the life made available to him in his father's funeral parlor where he has mastered the art of embalming the dead (that's all of us who are non-believers and himself at the outset of this cinematic journey, corpses).

Godless humanity is living in a "shadowland" of material consumption and meaningless sex, greed and will-to-power where everything is relative. The devil is the ultimate relativist and postmodernist (see Malcolm Bradbury's "Dr. Criminale") echoing Friedrich Nietzsche in this film: "God is dead!"

Michael decides to attend seminary classes to get an education without necessarily intending to join the priesthood, essentially finagling a higher education under false pretenses. But we are reminded: "God ... has chosen you, Michael."

The mere fact that we exist, according to Catholic teaching, suggests that we all have been chosen because our lives serve purposes that we see only through a glass darkly. Michael will become a priest. We will all do what we are here to do. For any one of us to take the life of another person, for example, is to assume a God-like prerogative to which we are not entitled. (''The Matrix': A Movie Review.")

The film becomes a work of Christian exhortation, warning us against the "devil's deceptions and mendacity." The devil's greatest deception is to convince us not only that he does not exist, but that God is "nonsense" because love is "unreal." ("John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism.")

We are unworthy of God's love. We cannot love one another. If you accept this demeaning view of humanity as naked apes and nothing more the devil wins. ("The Wanderer and His Shadow.")

Yes, these film characters may be seen as metaphors and symbols. You do not have to be a religious believer to appreciate the scriptures or this movie:

" ... I think the demon's target is not the possessed; it is us ... the observers [audience members] ... every person in this house. [The movie theater.] And I think -- I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps: in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it is finally a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could could love us. ... "

William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist (New York: Harpertorch, 1971), pp. 352-353.

To know that "God loves us" is a way of stating in religious language that we are capable of loving others and deserve to be loved.

On the other hand, if we accept that "God is dead" and if we are convinced that "God is not here, priest!" -- as the Hopkins' character says under possession -- then we must live in a world without ultimate hope or love. For this reason, Father Lucas (as the demon) says to Michael: "... even your father could not love you." ("Is it rational to believe in God?")

Lovelessness is a state of utter despair.

This so-called secular "life" ("there is no hope here!' says the devil, quoting Dante) is hell.

Hell is a place without love or hope -- a land of total darkness and surrender to our fallen and worthless state -- as "sinners." Hell can be created anywhere by persons abandoning their capacity for love and compassion; heaven is achieved anywhere that love and altruism prevail over selfishness and greed.

It is curious to see two of our best actors -- George Clooney and Anthony Hopkins -- making similar spiritual journeys.

If "God is love," then the absence of God is a world deprived of love.

Such a loveless world is not one in which human beings can live happily. Indeed, any fully human life implies the existence of love or at least the capacity to love others. ("'The American': A Movie Review.")

Nothing pleases the evil person more than inducing a sense of despair or hopelessness in his or her victims, usually through communicating the futility of resistance to oppressive and unjust power. The constant insertions of "errors" in my writings may express or reflect this absurd notion that "resistance is futile."

If a victim accepts that it is pointless to resist against evil uses of power then he or she will certainly become a slave. This we must never do. We must never accept slavery, even death is preferable to slavery. (Compare "'Michael Clayton': A Movie Review" with "Freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal.")

In the era of Charlie Sheen the concepts of sinfulness (or excess) must seem bizarre to audience members regarding this contest on-screen as a battle between heavenly powers.

It is your inner-struggle between forces of moral self-destruction as against self-realization that matters in Christianity and in this movie. Hence, the pull between psychiatry (which only takes us so far) and religion (which takes us to salvation). Art or politics may do the trick for you.

The battle in the heavens depicted by John Milton in "Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained" is internal to the modern soul. (''Drawing Room Comedy': A Philosophical Essay in the Form of a Film Script" and "Faust in Manhattan.")

Sent to Rome to meet an experienced exorcist, Michael will learn through a confrontation with the undeniable reality of ultimate evil, the wisdom of this film which is -- at least, partly -- the work of religious believers. "God" is always where you are, again, if you love deeply and want that love (i.e., presence); evil's "nothingness" disappears by comparison. Love is the torch that disperses the darkness. Compare and contrast L. William Countryman, "Love is a Phoenix," in Love Human and Divine: Reflections on Love, Sexuality, and Friendship (London: Moorehouse, 2005), pp. 54-55 with Mary Midgley, "Selves and Shadows," in Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay (London & New York: Ava, 1984), pp. 113-131.

"Not believing in the devil will not protect you from him."

We live in a time that is -- like our alter ego on-screen, Michael -- deeply suspicious of mythology. We cannot read the texts of our ancient fathers and mothers, nor view them with respect as communications of the most profound wisdom which our ancestors possessed and sought to convey to their children. The language of archetypes is nearly lost to persons today. Even educated Americans display a level of cultural unawareness that constitutes what, I describe, as severe deprivation. ("Nihilists in Disneyworld.")

Americans suffer deeply from the poverty of the rich. I refer to a misery of aesthetic capacity, loss of imaginative sympathy, shallowness and ignorance. I am distressed to say this because I am the father of a young person being inducted into this diminished intellectual culture. I am doing my best to provide a little extra education, despite my awareness of my all-too human limitations. There is no other explanation for the drivel published in once esteemed publications, like The New York Times. ("Manohla Dargis Strikes Again!")

Many of the brightest people in the world are in this country. Americans are among the richest people on the planet in genius, whether in the arts or sciences, but we are failing to communicate intellectual passions to the young or to beguile ordinary people into enjoying high culture. This failure is dangerous for America's future. ("Is this atheism's moment?")

There certainly is a love-story in this movie, but it has nothing to do with a romance between Michael and his guiding "angel" ("Angeline" played by Sonia Braga) who explains that he "cannot win without God." The New York Times reviewer got this detail wrong. Several other "errors" marred the review. Linda Blair played the girl possessed by the devil in "The Exorcist" and not Mercedes McCambridge. Stephen Holden, "Giving the Devil His Possessive Due," in The New York Times, January 28, 2011, at p. C10. (This critique is another embarrassing example of a reviewer failing to appreciate most of what is communicated in a good film.)

The real love depicted in "The Rite" is between the priest and his young charge, Philemon and his pupil, the knight and his squire -- together they slay the dragon of evil. Several Arthurian references are quite distinct and, again, may refer to Aslan the Lion who defeats the Evil Queen in Narnia. The images accompanying the lectures in Rome should be studied carefully. ("'I am Legend': A Movie Review.")

This rarely depicted love between teacher and student serves as the analogy to God's love for all of us "revealed" in Michael's (St. Michael against Lucifer) willingness to forgive his father's apathy and coldness while accepting the death of his mother and restoring Michael's mature relationship with God:

"The modern age," Terry Eagleton writes, "has witnessed what one might call a transition from the soul to the psyche. Or, if one prefers, from theology to psychoanalysis. There are many senses in which the latter is a stand-in for the former. Both are narratives of human desire -- though for religious faith that desire can finally be consummated in the kingdom of God, whereas for psychoanalysis it must remain tragically unappeased. In this sense, psychoanalysis is the science of human discontent. But so, too, is theology. With Freud, repression and neurosis play the role of what Christians have traditionally known as original sin. In each case, human beings are seen as born in sickness. But they are not beyond redemption."

On Evil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), pp. 16-18.

Professor Eagleton, whose Catholic education is obvious, hits the nail on the head:

"Evil as I see it is indeed metaphysical, in the sense that it takes up an attitude toward being as such, not just toward this or that bit of it. Fundamentally, it wants to annihilate the lot of it. But this is not to suggest that it is necessarily supernatural, or that it lacks causality. Many things -- art and language, for example -- are more than just a reflex of their social circumstances, but this is not to say that they drop from the skies." Finally, "In the end, evil is indeed all about death -- but about the death of the evildoer as much as that of those he annihilates."

On Evil, pp. 16-18 (emphasis added).

The corpse laid out on the table in one powerful image emphasizes associations to the writings of T.S. Eliot. ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.")

Suicides are persons who reject the gift of life. Evil is turning away from God through the inability to love, disdain for all of creation ("everything is shit"), abandonment of morality ("there is no good or evil"), loss of truth ("there is no truth"), and the worship of power, pleasure, manipulation and delight in the pain of others. ("What is it like to be tortured?" and "Why I am not an ethical relativist.")

"A crowd flowed under London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many."

T.S. Eliot, "The Wasteland," I. The Burial of the Dead, in John Wain, ed., The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 622.

In an interview with William F. Buckley, Jr., Malcolm Muggeridge defined the modern world as the choice between "a clenched fist and an erect phallus." They may amount to the same thing, Mr. Muggeridge. I certainly prefer the latter to the former. ("What a Man's Gotta Do" and "America's Love of Violence.")

"It has long been abudantly clear to me that I was born into a dying, if not already dead civilization."

Malcolm Muggeridge, "A Part in Search of a Play," in Chronicles of Wasted Time: An Autobiography (Washington: Regnery, 1972), pp. 14-15 and Malcolm Muggeridge, "St. Augustine," in A Third Testament (New York: Ballantine, 1976), pp. 38-41. (" ... because it is God's will.")

The "dying civilization" is Christendom. And yet, the "Gates of Hell shall not prevail against love." ("Is it rational to believe in God?" and "Pieta.")

Finding himself in this "Wasteland," Thomas Merton sought to understand phenomena like the Holocaust and neverending warfare because he felt that the monastery is also in the world, even as monks -- or all clergy -- are fallen or sinful men and women like other persons:

"And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as our own? Evidently this is not necessary for 'sanity' at all. It is a religious notion, a spiritual notion, a Christian notion. What business have we to equate 'sanity' with 'Christianity'? None at all, obviously. The worst error is to imagine that a Christian must try to be 'sane' like everybody else, that we belong in our kind of society. That we must be 'realistic' about it. [adjust!] We must develop a sane Christianity: and there have been plenty of sane Christians in the past. Torture is nothing new, is it? We ought to be able to rationalize a little brain washing, and genocide, and find a place for nuclear war, or at least for napalm bombs in our moral theology. ... Even Christians can shake off their sentimental prejudices about charity, and become 'sane' like Eichman. They can even cling to certain Christian formulas, and fit them into a Totalist ideology. Let them talk about justice, charity, love and the rest. These words have not stopped some sane men from acting very sanely and cleverly in the past. ..."

"A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichman," in The Non-Violent Alternative (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980), p. 161.

Is this "adjustment" how a Jew becomes Mengele?

Judaism's instruction that moral life is a struggle against human imperfection through acceptance of God's moral law, especially love for one another, makes "adjustment" to evil impossible for good Jews. A Jewish person can never accept evil for this is to reject the Covenant with God. An evil person cannot live a Jewish life, cannot live as a Jew, because evil committed against any other person is, in the deepest sense of the word, not kosher. ("Martin Buber and Diet Judaism" and "The Sleeping Prince" then Woody Allen's masterpiece "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "'Irrational Man': A Movie Review.")

The priest must love the suffering victim of evil in order for any "exorcism" to succeed. In a sense, an actor "possessed" by a character, must identify -- or even love that dramatic character -- without judging the persona that he or she creates if the aesthetic experience is to become real or compelling for audience members. This is quite a challenge when playing someone profoundly evil or disturbed. This is to speak of Mr. Hopkins' genius and patience or generosity of spirit in creating this powerful illusion on screen. The devil -- or Adolf Eichman -- unwittingly, becomes a means of moral instruction and even a pathway to God. Good movies may be used as vehicles of moral instruction (or therapy) as well as aesthetic works. ("The Wanderer and His Shadow" and "Out of the Past" then "What you will" and "God is Texting Me!")

Literature has been described as "an imaginary garden with real toads in it." (Anne Sexton)

Perhaps we are reminded in this movie that religious narratives are mythologies containing genuine wisdom and truth. In this movie, truth is conveyed through some very realistic toads and scary horses and cats. All of these creatures have been associated in folklore with demons. Please refer to The Chronicles of Narnia and the proceedings of the Most Holy Inquisition.

Anthony Hopkins is not Father Lucas. However, like Father Lucas, Mr. Hopkins wishes us to learn from this "insubstantial pageant" ("The Rite") what is most real and worthy in our lives. Reality is not necessarily Oscar awards or fame and fortune -- for these things are also illusions, they are dream-like -- but reality is the love that we give and receive for the few moments that we are here, in the audience, applauding stellar performances and welcoming the arrival of new actors who can thrill us. Every great artistic performance is an act of love. ("'Revolutionary Road': A Movie Review.")

The Times reviewer was under the impression that the film argues for psychiatry and against exorcism or the reality of evil. The exact opposite is true.

This movie suggests that evil is real and that the protagonist has entered the struggle against the darkness in the world as a Catholic priest -- a task for which he was chosen after all -- only after discovering his own capacities for love and courage. ("'The Reader': A Movie Review.")

Marta Gastini almost steals this movie from the wily Mr. Hopkins. How exiting to wonder when we will next see Ms. Gastini's work. Mr. Hopkins will be playing Odin in the soon to be released film, "Thor." From a lowly priest to a god. Who needs an Oscar when you can be the king of Valhalla?

"The Rite" is a B movie elevated to an A film by writing and acting that is outstanding.

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