The Exorcism of Emily Rose
by Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.
Some of you may have seen over the last year or so that I have sounded the alarm in several Catholic magazines about a couple of viciously anti-Catholic movies disguised as "history": "King Arthur" (2004) and "Kingdom of Heaven" (2005).
I have just been to see another new movie about the Church, with the full expectation of being provoked into circulating yet another "thumbs-down" warning about it.
Well ... Halleluiah! Would you believe that that particular expectation of mine has just been smashed astonishingly, wonderfully! into smithereens? Can anything morally or spiritually good come out of Hollywood especially in this day and age, more than half a century after the "good old" days when some movie moguls were (putatively at least) "on our side"?
To my utter amazement, I now have to admit that the answer is 'Yes"! Divine grace actual, if perhaps not yet necessarily sanctifying may be having its effect even in Tinseltown!
Ever since the big box-office success of the original version of "The Exorcist" more than thirty years ago, exorcism-flicks have become a sort of sub-division of the horror movie genre. Most of them have been pretty trashy, depending mainly on sensational special effects and frequently embodying malicious and embarrassingly ignorant caricatures of Catholic beliefs, rites and practices.
Not this time. "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" gets it right. Scarily, yes, but at the same time beautifully, powerfully inspiringly. This one is the real thing, folks. (I speak as a priest who has had direct experience with real-life exorcisms: in Rome, with Fr. Gabriel Amorth, the Pope's leading exorcist and author of several books on the subject.)
Like "The Exorcist", "Emily Rose" has its basis in a true case-history, but is far superior to the former movie in just about every respect. It's about a 19-year-old Canadian girl from a conservative/traditional Catholic family, who becomes possessed and eventually dies in that state after an unsuccessful exorcism. The family's parish priest who attempted the exorcism, Fr. Richard Moore, is then charged with criminal negligence leading to her death. This is because, having being totally entrusted with Emily's welfare by her devout family after psychiatric treatment and medication had proven fruitless, the priest decided to suspend all natural treatments in order to rely on the spiritual power of Christ and His sacred priesthood.
That forensic context alone makes fascinating watching for those who like most of you reading this are very conscious of the exclusion of Christ's social kingship from modern societies dominated by the "wall of separation" between Church and State. The superbly acted and directed court scenes in "Emily Rose" present a kind of microcosm of this radical internal conflict at the heart of post-Enlightenment Western culture. They effectively portray the legal dilemma that now arises when an officially agnostic political/judicial system is forced to come to grips with evidence that radically calls in question the secularist orthodoxy which dogmatizes that all possible events must at least in the public, civil forum be explained in terms of natural, scientific laws. This dilemma is highlighted in the gripping, brilliantly-written, dialogue confrontations between Fr. Moore's defense counsel (Laura Linney) and the prosecutor bent on persuading the jury that the priest's "archaic superstitions" were responsible for the girl's death. And the drama is ingeniously heightened by the paradox that while this publicly secularist prosecutor boasts that he is privately a "man of faith" (have we heard something a little like that before?), Fr. Moore's attorney has to openly admit that she's personally an agnostic. (The screenplay throughout this movie is excellent.)
That old "with-'religious'-friends-like-these-who-needs-enemies?" scenario will certainly resonate with the so-often-frustrated experience of so many of us traditionally-inclined Catholics in recent decades. A further touch of the same post-conciliar realism comes to light quickly when we learn that the accused Fr. Moore, an honest-to-goodness, orthodox Catholic priest, finds the rug being pulled out from under him by you guessed it! the modernist, politicking archdiocesan chancery officials who don't really believe in all that stuff about the devil and possession, and are just plain embarrassed by the whole business! (Yes, folks, this decidedly non-liberal script is actually coming from an 'establishment' Hollywood movie! Mel Gibson had nothing to do with it.)
As a matter of fact, Fr. Moore (played by Tom Wilkinson) comes across as more than just an honest-to-goodness, orthodox priest (wearing his clerical suit and collar whenever he's out of his prison uniform). He's an exemplary, prayerful priest. A holy priest. A old-style priest who knows how to talk back sternly in Latin when the demon croaks at him mockingly in the Church's language. He is quietly dignified in his humiliation in prison and in court. This priest manifests true Catholic pastoral charity and zeal for souls, and a Christ-like willingness to sacrifice his own temporal reputation and freedom for the sake of telling the truth about Emily. Moreover, Wilkinson's portrayal of this character is totally credible, with his acting rising to a superb level in the last court-room scene where he gives his final testimony about Emily. For my money, Wilkinson's Father Moore here in the dark Third Millennium, no less! is a thousand times better than Bing Crosby's superficial "cool", crooning priest characters from the supposed golden days of the 'forties and 'fifties. In short, this was a film that left me feeling proud to be wearing my Roman collar as I exited the theater!
Even though the Catholic-influenced Legion of Decency which vetted movies back then has long since disappeared, "Emily Rose" has no foul or blasphemous language (even though it's about demonic possession), no sex, and no nudity. So the most deeply traditional Catholic parents can see, and allow their kids to see, this film, provided only that the latter are old enough not to be traumatized by the scary scenes. Indeed, such families will empathize with the Rose family, whose devout, orthodox Catholic convictions are treated with sympathy and respect throughout the film.
Maybe you are thinking by now that in spite of all these merits, "Emily Rose" still sounds overall like a pretty depressing movie: after all, we're talking about a FAILED exorcism which ends in the hideous death of the possessed girl. If that's what you're thinking, then never fear! You should know that there is a simply wonderful, profoundly moving, surprise ending to the film which puts that whole scenario in a totally unexpected, supernatural light. I assure you you'll leave the theater after seeing "Emily Rose" with your faith strengthened, your spirit elevated and probably with tears welling in your eyes. All the more so because we are assured at the end that this story is basically history, not fiction. (The real-life events on which the film is based actually took place in Germany in the mid-1970s.)
One final comment. I said above that Mel Gibson had nothing to do with this movie. On second thought, maybe he did unwittingly. Could it be that the box-office success of "The Passion" last year is finally getting the message through to some Hollywood studios that there is a huge potential market out there for films which respect, rather than ridicule, traditional religion? If so, we traditional religionists should confirm this message for them by going to see "The Exorcism of Emily Rose". I urge you not to miss it and take your older children along too. As far as I'm concerned, it is a masterpiece: one of the finest and most moving films I've ever seen in my life, and indeed, a worthy companion to "The Passion of the Christ".