Film analysis: The Exorcism of Emily Rose
- Fr Peter Malone
- Dec 31st, 2008
For film audiences since 1973, The Exorcist has been something of a model for what most people imagine as the rite of exorcism in the Catholic Church. The film was successful in its time, both critically and at the box-office, produced two sequels and many imitations, was successfully re-released on its twenty fifth anniversary and continues its life on television, on video and DVD. A prequel, The Exorcist: a New Beginning, was released in 2004. The Exorcist is probably a case where a film shapes consciousness rather than reflecting it.
In the era of The Da Vinci Code, there is a greater interest in Christian themes, especially connected with the Catholic Church. All kinds of hypothesis and inventions are turning up, many of which are being accepted as ‘gospel’ by a usually sceptical public. This is compounded by the impact of the abuse cases against clergy which have turned public attention towards the priesthood leading, in many countries, to disappointment on the one hand and to contempt on the other.
It is in this context that The Exorcism of Emily Rose has been released. Considered as a low-key box-office prospect, the film surprised the industry by taking $30,000,000 in its September opening weekend in the United States. This means that its prospects of being screened more widely improved considerably.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is worth seeing.
The subject will not appeal to everyone. Demonic possession is a frightening topic. It is mystifying. Why would devils possess a human being, and what does this mean? How can people cope? What is the response of the Church? Who are exorcists and what authority do they have? What are the rituals – and are they successful? What impact does possession and exorcism have on non-believers and on a sceptical world? (It is interesting to note that a two month course on Exorcisms and Satanism was held in early 2005 at the Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorum in Rome.
This film takes all these issues into consideration. Admittedly, this is ‘only a movie’. It is not a theological or sociological or medical document. However, in the space of two hours storytelling, it draws its audiences into the reality of possession, moves them emotionally, but also challenges them to think about the issues.
Director and co-writer, Scott Derickson, is not a Catholic. He has a Presbyterian background. He has done his research and Catholics will be comfortable with his perception of the Church. As with so many stories, he has added some of his own speculations which are passed off as the real thing. This is the case especially with his device of having clocks stop at 3am and claiming it to be the devil’s hour for entering the world because three refers to the Trinity and to the time that Jesus died. (It would be a pity if that were the only thing that audiences remembered.) He also has a parish catechetical program where Emily Rose could study some Biblical Greek and Hebrew and even a smattering of Aramaic. (That is wishful thinking!)
In comparison with The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a model of how to make more with less. It should not be considered as a horror film. Rather, it is a religious and psychological drama that has traditional elements of horror or, as The Hollywood Reporter describes it, a ‘supernatural thriller’. In the possession scenes, there is no swearing, no bile, no vomit, no head swivelling as in 1973. (It has a US rating of PG 13.) There are strange voices and utterances (as were also reported in the Gospel stories of demonic possession), catatonic episodes and limb contortions. The eeriness is felt through loud and piercing cries and the atmospheric sounds and sound engineering.
What are the themes and treatment that make the film of interest to Catholic audiences?
The film is basically respectful towards the Church, even when criticisms are voiced. It is sympathetic to this Catholic story at a time when many are hostile towards the Church or feel they have been offended by it.
The film shows a sincere priest, even though many may disagree with the stances he takes towards the possessed girl, the treatment by doctors and the medication she was prescribed. He is accused of negligent homicide because of his agreement with her that she should come off medication and that religious ritual was the way to deal with her condition. As portrayed by Tom Wilkinson, Fr Richard Moore is a decent and spiritual man caught up with something previously beyond his experience and trying to do his best for the family from his parish and getting the authority of the diocese to go ahead with an exorcism (including using technical resources like taping the ritual so that it can be authenticated). The screenplay shows the important role of the parish priest as confidant who can be trusted and the nature of confidentiality.
The film suggests a respect for simple faith, the trusting unsophisticated faith of ordinary people that more educated critics look down on as superstitious or simplistic. This is the case with Emily Rose’s parents and their beliefs and trust in the priest. It is glib to disregard anything that is not understood as ‘medieval superstition’.
During the latter part of the 20th century, many have struggled with the questions of evil in the world and how this relates to traditional teachings and beliefs about the devil and evil spirits. The film highlights the reality of evil in our world, the power of evil as well as of the divine.
The answer to some of these questions that the screenplay offers harks back to previous centuries, especially to those women who experienced apparitions whether it be Anne Catherine Emmerich, Bernadette, the children of Fatima or more recent visionaries. Emily Rose is presented as one of these. She sees Mary and receives a message.
In 2004, a number of Catholics found the spirituality in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ too focused on Jesus’ sufferings and the implication of cruelty on the part of the Father and not enough on resurrection hope. A similar critique might be made here. Emily Rose is given the option of being freed from possession by exorcism or continuing to be possessed until her death in order to witness to the world that there is a supernatural world, that evil exists and invades the world but that the presence of God is stronger.
This spirituality of victimhood has a strong tradition. In more recent centuries, saints like Therese of Lisieux offered her ‘little way’ of community contemplative life for the labours of overseas missionaries. Saints like Gemma Galgani or St John Vianney had experiences similar to those of Emily Rose in combating the devil. The efficacy and relevance of this kind of spirituality will be continually argued. The film does not follow the path of some recent visionaries (and of some whose messages have been discredited) in being pessimistic about the world and uttering apocalyptic condemnations. The message here is that redemption is possible and that good will overcome evil.
The core of the film is the court case where Fr Moore is being tried for negligent homicide. The prosecution develops the argument that Emily Rose was schizophrenic or paranoid or experiencing some kind of psychotic episode. Expert opinion is heard. The nature of the medication prescribed and its hoped-for effects are discussed. This is the approach that most people take (including Church officials who would take the part of what has become known as the Devil’s Advocate). The prosecutor, played by a steely Campbell Scott, has been chosen because he is a Methodist and a churchgoer. However, he stresses that, in the courts, facts are what is important and he relies on scientific, medical fact.
The defence lawyer, Laura Linney at her best, tries to counter these arguments. She calls a witness, an expert in the experience of evil in more sophisticated and less sophisticated religions around the world and their belief in possession. Then she decides that the better defence is to accept that the religious treatment, the exorcism, is a valid way of dealing with Emily Rose’s condition and that Fr Moore made the correct decision to go through with the ritual. She is a declared agnostic. Fr Moore warns her that she will be subject to demonic attacks. Strange things happen to her or that is how she perceives them. What happens to her in terms of the defence is that she realises that facts are not absolutes, that facts are always interpreted.
The screenplay is well-written all the way through. It is in the two summing up speeches that the differences between fact and interpretation are made very clear. Scientific evidence, plain and well-founded as it may be, is still working in the realm of hypothesis. Therefore, it must concede that there can be other possibilities.
One reviewer commenting after the screening was offended by the film because he alleged that it advocated bringing religious hypotheses into American jurisprudence. This highlights the limitations of the confrontative nature of court proceedings, especially the confining of witness testimony to issues of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ with no allowance for modifications or ‘buts’. The Exorcism of Emily Rose indicates that facts must be presented but the facts are open to several possibilities of interpretation.
The film raises the question as to the nature of holiness and who are saints. In the secularised Western world, people tend to be very sceptical about the possibility of saints. It is an unspoken assumption that saints should be ‘normal’. When the saint is less than perfect, especially if influenced by a psychological condition, their holiness is dismissed – except in literature where Dostoievski’s The Idiot and characters who resemble him can be extolled. Fr Moore claims that Emily Rose is a saint. He tells her story in court, challenging the audience to consider whether they think she is a saint and that this is an example of sanctity. This is clearly a challenge to the theological stances of the audience and the nature of their own spirituality and piety.
There is no claim that The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a cinema masterpiece. Rather, it is a well-written and well-crafted film that deals with religious and Church questions in a secular world which, at the moment, has become intrigued by spirituality and ecclesiastical institutions.
LONDON – 15 November 2005 – 1,760 words