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The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Posted on: December 27, 2005

WHAT HAPPENED TO EMILY?

       The true story on which the movie is based

‘The
Exorcism of Emily Rose’ is a well-crafted, creepy film that explores
profound questions about the nature of God. Does He exist? Do you
really want to know?

       

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Looking
for a feel-good movie this weekend? Something for grown-ups that
addresses the everyday crises and disappointments of life, but ends
with a warm, suffusing sense that all is well, and every problem, if
honestly faced by a genuinely good-looking protagonist, can be solved
within 120 minutes? Then this is not the movie for you. Go see Wedding Crashers instead.

The film raises and addresses profound questions about the nature of evil but doesn’t pretend to answer them.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the kind of movie that disturbs while it entertains. The film depicts (employing poetic license) the true story of a bright, young college student, Emily Rose (played by the gifted Jennifer Carpenter) who seemingly became possessed by six demons and was approved for exorcism by her local diocese. The exorcism was protracted, horrific, and futile. She died of malnutrition, and the priest in charge was prosecuted for criminal neglect.

The film is a courtroom drama centered on the trial, suffused with flashbacks to apparently preternatural,
and profoundly disturbing events. The protagonist is the priest’s
lawyer (played by the ever-brilliant Laura Linney), a cynical agnostic
driven by ambition, hired by a shame-faced diocese to hush the whole
thing up. But the priest (portrayed by the compelling Tom Wilkinson),
refuses to cop a plea—insisting that he must take the stand and "tell
Emily Rose’s story. That’s what she wanted." The prosecutor, a dour
Protestant (played with silk and steel rectitude by Campbell Scott),
brings an army of expert witnesses to try to prove that Emily had a
diagnosed, treatable psychiatric condition—"psychotic epilepsy"which
the priest culpably ignored in favor of exorcism. Thus the film
presents forensically the clash between contemporary scientific
humanism and spiritual warfare.
The contest is presented impartially, with men of each tradition
speaking cogently and persuasively for their points of view—including
the priest. As the director said, "It really was one of my goals to
present a Catholic priest as a character with dignity and respect. I
think Catholics and priests are such easy fodder for stereotype and
vilification. I wanted to create character you couldn’t help but
respect for his passion and integrity."

The film raises and addresses profound questions about the nature of evil and why God permits the suffering of the innocentbut
doesn’t pretend to answer them. And that’s just what the filmmaker
intended. Scott Derrickson, a graduate of the artsy Christian liberal
arts university, Biola, calls himself an "orthodox Christian" and confesses that he’s addicted to the novels of Walker Percy, and to reading and re-reading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.
In fact, as Derrickson told me in an interview, Catholic screenwriting
maven Barbara Nicolosi warns him, "You’re just one Chesterton book away
from crossing the Tiber," and becoming a Catholic. Whatever his
background, Derrickson has crafted a compelling drama which sends you
out of the theater feeling queasily fascinated, wondering if you need
to seek some kind of protection, despite your faith or lack thereof.

I expect that this film will drive some
people afflicted by unfamiliar voices and eerie occurrences to pester
priests with the suggestion that they might be possessed. And the
priests will do what the Church tells them to do—send these poor souls
to the doctor. As the film makes clear, Church officials are extremely
skeptical about such claims, insisting that every natural explanation
and treatment be completely exhausted before a spiritual cause is
inferred for a person’s distress. When Catholics get a toothache,
they’re supposed to go to the dentistnot to Lourdes.

When Catholics get a toothache, they’re supposed to go to the dentist—not to Lourdes.

I raised with the director the possibility that the film might provoke a panic about demonic possession—as had The Exorcist,
which some said inspired the delusions endured by Anneliese Michel, the
real Bavarian girl upon whom "Emily Rose" is based. Derrickson admitted
that it was a danger. "But as a filmmaker, I feel responsible for the
effect my work would have on normal, balanced peoplenot
on the small number of troubled souls. I mean, you can point to several
serial killers who carried around the Bible. They just didn’t
understand it. The Bible’s full of provocative, dangerous stuff."

(To read how the movie The Omen screwed me up almost irreparably, click here.)

Derrickson admits that he didn’t follow the facts of the case as closely as one would in making a biopic (such as Kinsey).
"I felt obliged to take this true story and do it justice by creating a
thought-provoking film that caused people to think deeply about the
subject of whether there’s a spiritual realm. I thought this was a
great way of getting into those questions. It’s a work of fiction based
on a real thing that happened."

The real things that happened, according
to the film, are fairly disturbing—especially for a believer. Emily
Rose was not a Satanist or an aspiring witch; she’d never even touched
a Ouija board. Indeed, she was the pious, virginal daughter of a
devoutly Catholic familythe last
person who’d open herself to demonic possession. But demons seem to
have kicked down the door, and tormented her for years, until Fr. Moore
undertook a course of exorcisms—which failed. If a faithful and holy
priest like Fr. Moore cannot expel the forces of evil from the soul of
an innocent by invoking the name of Jesus… one begins to wonder:
What’s the point? Which side is really stronger, after all? What kind
of a God permits such innocent suffering; is He sadistic, incompetent,
or merely distracted? Is the Creator an overworked cosmic chef who’s
put one too many universes on the stove, and hasn’t noticed that ours
is bubbling over?

Derrickson says he wanted to raise such
questions, rather than answer them. "I’m kind of a doubter by nature.
That’s been a big part of my spiritual journey. What I found personally
compelling about this tale is that there’s no easy way to resolve the
questions the movie presents. There’s no simple, clean-cut obvious
answer. But the questions it raises are important for everybody. I’m
not interested in trying to propagate my own view. It’s much more about
asking the right questions," he said.

If a holy priest cannot expel the forces of evil, then one begins to wonder: Which side is really stronger, after all?

The answer offered by the film’s most heroic charactersFr. Moore and Emily Rose herself—is that Emily is a "victim soul," an innocent who willingly offers to "make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ," for the benefit of sinners on earth. We don’t like to think about saints like thisand
personally, I don’t recommend reading about them—but the Church has
recognized quite a few, most famously St. Lidwina of Schiedam. Emily
suffered, the film’s heroes suggest, to prove to the world the reality
of the preternatural and supernatural worldsby showing men the devil, she would turn them to God.

Which led this viewer to ask the director
if he wasn’t encouraging us both to believe in God and to dislike Him?
Derrickson responded: "I often find myself troubled when I think deeply
about this and the nature of God. It is perplexing. But isn’t that the
story of the saints, the apostles themselves? People who suffered
tremendously so that God’s nature could be revealed to the world. That
does give me questions and apprehensions about God, but I always come
back to a place of comfort when I think that God Himself endured
that—if you believe in the incarnation. I hope agnostics will be
troubled by the spiritual possibilities the film presents, but that
Christians will also be troubled into thinking about issues like this."

It remains to be seen if audiences will be challenged, troubled, and fascinatedas
I was—or if they’ll leave the theater unsatisfied, because the film
leaves unanswered questions. Even after 9/11, and now Katrina, most
moviegoers may not be interested in listening to subtle arguments about
God and the existence of evil, especially on a Saturday night. I
suspect they’d prefer a demon movie that delivers the "moral of the
story" nicely packaged up, with a bright red bow. I can’t say I blame
them. Will "Emily" tap into the mass Christian audience that made The
Passion of the Christ a huge success? It remains to be seen. I hope so.

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