Different Movies for Different Eyes
I have no morbid curiosity about the devil, mind you. He got a few lines from the Lord in the Gospels and he does not need any more attention from me. However, Hollywood does seem to be giving him unwarranted attention these days, whether through exorcism movies or occult themes in movies. The devil is “a liar from the beginning,” so we have to be extremely vigilant about how the devil and the Faith are presented in our culture.
Let me state my position clearly about Emily Rose. I think it is a good movie to see if you are a faithful Catholic. It will strengthen your faith in God’s sovereignty over this world and inspire you about the role of the Church in witnessing to that sovereignty. However, it is a very bad movie to see if you are religiously uncommitted because it delivers a potentially confusing message about the Church’s power over the devil. Finally, it could also be an excellent movie to use as a means of evangelization. Let me explain.
I saw the movie twice and evaluated it from three perspectives: first, its presentation of the Catholic Faith; second, its accuracy in regard to exorcism; and third, the clarity of its message for an unbelieving world. Since I am a priest and not a movie critic, I will not attempt to comment on the cinematography or the acting the average viewer would consider these very good to excellent, I am sure. I limit myself to the above three dimensions because I believe them to be critical for the salvation of souls.
On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most effective, I rate the movie this way: about the Catholic Faith an eight; about the exorcism a four; and on being suitable for non-believers a two or a nine depending on whether a non-believer goes to the movie alone or goes with a believer.
A Surprisingly Good Presention of the Catholic Faith
The Catholic Faith does not suffer in Emily Rose. In fact, it fares well enough for a score of eight. Unlike so much superficial religiosity that comes out of Hollywood, this movie was not an attempt to pummel religion in general or the Catholic Faith in particular. The elements of our belief system were not distorted or glossed over, but rather explained accurately when necessary for understanding some part of the message. For example, the priest in the movie, Fr. Richard Moore, gave a rudimentary explanation of the ritual of exorcism of the Church in a way that took out the spooky mysticism of this ancient rite and that must have been enlightening to Catholics and non-believers alike.
Characters in the movie actually mention the name of Jesus Christ numerous times. How often does that happen in Hollywood? The Virgin Mary had a powerful active presence in the life of the possessed woman, Emily Rose. Instead of the caricature of a kooky religion that we have seen time and time again from Hollywood, Catholic churches, rituals, artifacts, religious articles and most importantly, the simple faith of Emily’s family, were treated with reverence and mature insight.
The lead character, Fr. Moore, is presented as a sincere, knowledgeable and loving pastor of souls who finds himself between a rock and a hard place when his exorcism patient (exorcee) dies, and he is jailed for negligent homicide, of all things. He proves his mettle when he is tempted to think about his own welfare instead of doing the right thing and getting Emily’s story out to a wider audience. He risks his own reputation and livelihood to do a heroic deed, something we are rather unaccustomed to witnessing in clerics and hierarchs these days. As a priest, I loved the guy’s example and would take him as my pastor in a heartbeat. He’s got a priest’s heart. He’s authentic. His mission throughout the movie is to tell Emily’s story, and he fulfills his mission with admirable and single-minded dedication.
Apropos the other main characters in the movie, the two lawyers in particular, the Faith stands up to deep scrutiny. Father Moore’s lawyer, Erin Bruner, is a professed, but not angry, agnostic. She tests, denies, cajoles, doubts, and resists the invasion of things religious into her well-honed system of professional disbelief. Still, by the end of the movie, the double dose of real faith that she sees in Father Moore and the witness of Emily Rose has pushed her out of her comfort zone. The very last scene shows her with a pensive “What am I gonna do now?” look as she reflects on the possibility of becoming a believer. The steely, sarcastic Protestant prosecutor who finds every reason possible to ridicule things Catholic makes a spectacle of himself and is eventually told to shut up and sit down by the judge, who seems won over by the arguments of faith. If anything took a beating in this movie, it was Protestantism that is, the portrayal of a “practicing” Protestant with a total lack of belief in supernatural realities.
The reason I did not rate this category a full ten is that there is entirely too much fear shown by the Catholics in the face of evil. I suppose that was inevitable; after all this is a horror film! However, there is no fear of the devil where authentic faith enters in. I chalk the fear factor up to Hollywood’s need to create suspense, but it did not really diminish my respect for the expressions of faith that were clearly portrayed throughout the movie.
To further this false sense of the devil’s supremacy was the devil’s persistent “stalking” of the characters, from Emily on down. It is undoubtedly true that the devil harasses and persecutes people, but the movie showed a few totally unreal scenarios that need comment so that we are all clear about the devil’s powers and limits.
First, the devil was portrayed as coming to Emily one night in the middle of a sound sleep and possessing her in a horrific display of perfect terror for the poor girl. Well, it just doesn’t happen that way. Perfectly well-adjusted, faith-filled young women don’t just wake up one night possessed. The devil is not allowed to do that thank God! That was Hollywood, not reality. People who live consciously in a state of grace, who do not dabble in the occult, and who pray, are not subject to this kind of demonic intrusion at all. I found that the most unbelievable aspect of the movie.
And while the effects of Emily’s possessed state were accurately portrayed speaking in foreign tongues, immense power and hideous voices and gestures some of the other special effects of the movie were just outlandish. For example, the devil has never been known to appear as a misty goblin face on the window of a dark classroom where college students are taking an exam. He is not that much of an idiot. Nor does he show up in a Zorro-like shape at the door of a rectory, nod to the priest as if he were his tennis partner beginning a match, and then proceed to do scary things to him and the rest of the characters at precisely 3 o’clock every morning. The most outrageous illusion of this stalking menace was when somehow, at the height of the legal battle, the devil manages to kill the star witness by a runaway car right before the very eyes of the defending attorney. While we could see this as just a bit of Hollywood silliness, such mischaracterizations of the devil’s reach are to me quite dangerous from a spiritual perspective. The devil simply does not operate this way, and we could come away from the movie thinking that he is lurking around every corner looking for his chance to possess us.
Finally, one could conclude from this movie that the devil was unstoppable, because not only did the exorcism fail to expel him, but after that, the Church herself, her ritual, her priesthood and her dignity were all put on trial. I realize that this movie is based upon a true story, but I am more concerned about the overall impression created by this seeming failure. This brings us to a discussion of the message and why it is that to really appreciate this movie, one must have strong faith.
Is This What an Exorcism Is Really Like?
I did not think that this movie portrayed a solemn exorcism accurately. All the elements for the conduct of a true exorcism were in place, but the acting did not show an exorcism being conducted well, and so the score on this is only four. It was not just that it was a “failed” exorcism the movie is based on a real exorcism that actually failed, so it was meant to fail as part of the main theme. Rather, it is that the good priest mismanaged the exorcism experience and gave false impressions about the Church’s power against the devil. It is that false impression that is hard to correct if you do not already have strong faith.
First, the accurate parts. Father Moore used the 1952 Roman ritual of exorcism, and he used it accurately, that is, in the proper order and with the right emphasis. We only got snippets of it in the movie, but I recognized it as substantially taken from the Church’s actual ritual. I liked his speaking back to the demon in Latin because it showed the power of a consecrated language in a sacred ritual against pure evil. He used holy water at the beginning, he used a Crucifix at the end, and he correctly got permission for the exorcism from his bishop. No exorcist performs an exorcism without a bishop’s permission and therefore apostolic authority.
Having said that, there were some egregious errors in this portrayal of an exorcism, starting with the fact that it was conducted at night. Never, if it can be avoided, does an exorcist perform an exorcism at night. I don’t even need to explain that, do I? It is self-evident. Christ is the Light. Light shatters the darkness in every way. Exorcisms are performed in the light of day, but it fit perfectly into Hollywood’s horror template that it was pitch dark outside and that a vicious thunderstorm was unleashed on them just as the exorcism began.
There were several other elements of this Hollywood exorcism that fit into the category of “it just doesn’t happen that way.”
The first was the conduct of the devil. In this movie, again for dramatic effect, the devil was shown to be an aggressor who had the upper hand against the priest all the time. He was never really fettered at all. The devil broke through the silly little straps that Father somehow naively thought would hold the exorcee to the bed. No wonder that the demon caused the possessed young woman to rip the strap off, slammed one of the helpers with a ferocious whack to the face, and then proceeded to throw the woman out the window.
It just doesn’t happen that way, folks. No exorcist would have used such straps or secured Emily like that. Exorcisms are carefully controlled events that are prepared for well in advance by an exorcist who takes everything in the room that could be used against him out of harm’s way including even the carpets, if necessary. The exorcist presumes that he will be battling a being with superhuman strength and never, ever, allows himself, the exorcee, or his team to be put at risk of harm. Harm might come in the heat of the battle, but it usually doesn’t when there is good preparation of the battlefield. The exorcist is always in control, like a good warrior. What we witnessed in Emily Rose was the devil in charge, getting the upper hand unnecessarily because of a poorly-prepared exorcist.
Keep in mind that in an exorcism the demon is a caged animal, emphasis on “caged.” He is vicious and mean and very powerful, but he takes a huge risk by entering the body of a person; the risk is that he knows that at some point the Church might just decide to bind him up like a rat in that body and then throw him out of it back to hell where he belongs and where he wants least of all to go. The exorcist is not matched equally in a contest with a demon; flesh and blood have no chance against malevolent spirits. But the demon is not matched equally in a contest with the Church, and he knows it.
We all remember “the gates of hell” quote; that’s what it means. The gates of this soul, sold like a wretched slave to the minions of hell, are locked tighter than a drum until the Church breaks through them with the authority of Christ and casts the demon out, one of the few irrefutable signs of apostolic authority in this age or the age to come. Hence, when the Church enters into combat with the caged beast, it is the Church that always has the upper hand, not the demon. Emily Rose did not portray that and led us to believe that the devil has much more power against the Church than he does. Let me tell you from personal experience: the devil cowers before Christ’s Church when she comes against him in a real exorcism. He grovels in the dirt before the Offspring of Mary as Genesis predicted. It is not the other way around.
It is in this vein that we can also view the pitiful team that Father Moore brought to help him. They were to a man sincere, but you need more than sincerity going into hand-to-hand combat with the devil. You need fierce faith and steely nerves. You need intense prayer and fasting, and sadly, nothing of this kind was in evidence in the movie. Everyone there was shaking like a leaf the whole time and when things got nasty, with the predictable demonic outbursts, they acted like the Three Stooges petrified at the sight of a ghost. The doctor checked out, the father was knocked silly once and rendered unconscious another time, and the boyfriend was totally disoriented throughout.
Father Moore was equally a mess. He lost his focus on Emily two or three significant times. This is the kiss of death in an exorcism. The exorcist has to wield the Church’s superior weapons in battle just as a navy commander stands on the bow of his ship to direct the attack with all the weaponry and manpower at his disposal. This is for the protection and deliverance of the soul of the exorcee. Father was right in instructing the team that they should not disobey a single command of his, but then he issued no commands at all! What kind of warrior is that? The devil must not have felt very threatened by the pathetic assault against him by the Church’s representatives.
Clarifying the Message for an Unbelieving World
If you are a strong believer you will come away from the movie with enough realism about the devil that your faith will be strengthened for the “day of battle.” Understanding the subtleties of the exorcism ritual is not the key here; the focus should be on the battle of the Church and the way in which the Church always seems to derive something good out of every evil. In this case, the good was that many graces were obtained for the conversion of others through Emily’s death and by the intrepid witness to the reality of the devil which Father Moore gave in fulfillment of Emily’s wishes. Believers will not see her death as a failure; instead they will derive a clear and positive resurrection message from this movie.
Religiously uncommitted people however, will be hopelessly confused. I must confess that the first time I saw the movie I had to sort out some things myself afterward. The unbelieving lawyer still remains an agnostic at the end of the movie, so a non-believer might feel confirmed in remaining non-committal. The jury eventually votes to convict Father Moore, but then mitigates the penalty and sentences him to time served. This was very kind of them, but if he was guilty why let him off the hook? Or if he was innocent why convict him? Confusion. The Protestant prosecutor clearly does not have the convictions of his own Christian faith, and one could gather from his aggressive, derisive, even scientifically atheistic questioning of Father Moore that he “checks his religion” at the door of the courtroom and merely plays church on Sundays. More confusion. Even the credits were confusing. At the beginning we are told that this is based on a true story, and then at the very end comes the standard disclaimer that “any resemblance to real persons or situations is strictly coincidental.” Again, confusion.
In other words, if a non-believer goes to this movie alone the clarity of the message will be so largely lost on him that I would only score it a two. If he is taken by a believer though, he can come out of it with a score of nine for effectiveness and have as good a faith experience as the believer. He needs to talk it over; he needs to work through the images and symbols. He needs to ask a few basic questions about the power of the devil and the power of God, and if he does, the religiously committed person could, with God’s grace, make a believer out of him.
Don’t miss the movie. Use it as an opportunity for evangelization. You will anger the devil and someone’s soul could be saved by it.
© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange
Rev. Thomas J. Euteneuer is the president of Human Life International (www.hli.org).