“What did you expect?” asks Father Lucas Trevant (played by Anthony Hopkins) in “The Rite,” a shocking new film on exorcism in theaters now. “Spinning heads and pea soup?”

Paying homage to classic thriller “The Exorcist” (which had plenty of spinning heads and pea soup), “The Rite” nonetheless delivers something totally unexpected in a film on the devil: an intentional, powerful message on the need to believe in God.

And I’m not just talking about some passing reference or veiled metaphor on belief – I mean an in-your-face, atheism-trouncing, gospel-preaching presentation that is the film’s primary plotline and moral of the story.

You heard me right: “The Rite” is not just some horror movie; it’s practically an evangelistic tool.

Now, I don’t care to get into the theological minutiae of this religion-laced film, to debate its Catholic rites and rituals, its quote about being in and out of “a state of grace,” whether a priest can be possessed, whether Baal is actually a demon, or how to go about casting out Satan and so forth.

Doctrine watchdogs could easily get distracted in all that stuff.

But in an age when reason, “science,” atheism and psychology rule the popular worldview, making skeptics of the masses, “The Rite” makes a very bold claim: “Choosing not to believe in the devil won’t protect you from him.”

The film follows a young man named Michael Kovak, who runs off to Catholic seminary to get away from his troubled youth. After four years at the college, however, Kovak has no more belief in God than when he started and is ready to pitch the whole experience to assume life as a hardened skeptic.

But before he can leave, his professor forces him to Rome to attend a new program training priests to perform exorcisms.

In Rome, Kovak treats all the talk of demons and the supernatural with stereotypical American “cool,” convinced it’s all just superstition foisted upon people with perfectly reasonable, diagnosable psychological conditions. The people need a shrink, he says, not an exorcism.

Until he meets Father Lucas.

Lucas in an unorthodox priest with a long track record of taking on the devil and driving the evil one out. Lucas is patient with Kovak, but insists that denying the devil’s existence doesn’t mean Satan isn’t at work.

“When a thief robs your house, does he turn on the lights? No, he doesn’t want you to know he’s there. Just like the devil,” Lucas insists. “He’s a deceiver, Michael, he’s a deceiver.”

He continues, “I prefer to believe people lie to themselves rather than face the truth. … Skeptics, atheists are always looking for proof. The trouble is, what we do if we found it?”

The first full half of the film is a well-crafted, intelligent drama about an atheist (Kovak) in the Vatican, tinged with the subtle, underlying suspense of knowing that all hell – literally – is eventually going to break loose.

And when it does, when Kovak dares the devil to prove his existence and the atheist is suddenly convinced of the proof he was so sure didn’t exist, the film ramps up to a still-smart thriller with more than a few twists and surprises on its way to a – again, literally – screaming finale.

But “The Rite” isn’t just another horror film glorifying evil and reveling in death. In fact, the film contains a powerful scene at the climax, when Kovak attempts to take up arms against Satan and realizes, “I can’t do it; it’s more than just saying the words.”

Without giving too much away, the movie’s redemptive ending is an affirmation that not only does Satan exist, but so does Jesus Christ, and the latter is the victor and savior of men’s souls. Furthermore, merely holding to religious doctrine is shown in the film to be an empty exercise, unable to defeat evil. Only by receiving the lordship of Jesus through surrender to faith, the movie shows, does man also receive freedom from the power of hell.

Wait. Was I just describing “The Rite”? Or a Billy Graham film?

“The Rite” may be a Hollywood exorcism thriller, but Anthony Hopkins is correct: It’s about a lot more than spinning heads and pea soup.

Content advisory:

  • “The Rite” contains a number of disturbing and gruesome scenes, including a mortician’s work, demon-possessed characters, bloodshed and wounds, the vomiting of nails and a particularly shocking scene when a child is violently struck. While the film actually tones down the gore and violence for a movie of this genre, it is still an exorcism flick.
  • The film contains fewer than a dozen total profanities and obscenities, but when the demon-possessed speak, they are often lewd, vulgar, threatening and abusive. In one scene, a possessed girl attempts to seduce a priest, saying, “Rape me.”
  • “The Rite” contains a handful of sexual elements, including the above-mentioned seduction scene and discussion of a girl possessed by her father raping her. A separate exorcism scene also plays on sexual themes to offend the priest. There are a few shots that show extra leg or focus on a gal’s behind and a few lewd jokes, but there are no sex or rape scenes actually depicted on screen, neither is there nudity or any meaningful romantic relationships.
  • The film obviously contains hundreds of religious references, Scripture quotes, prayers, crosses, icons and so forth, as the movie is all about priests, their faith (or lack thereof) and the devil. Occult content – outside of the ravings of the demon-possessed themselves – is actually kept to a minimum, limited mostly to a devil tattoo, some charm bracelets that reappear in the film, the appearance of a demon in the form of a mule and crosses that are turned upside down by possessed characters. The film surprisingly refrains from the typical pentagram symbols and other fascinations with the occult.

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