01.31.11

What's Real in The Rite

Do all exorcists have cellphones? Do the possessed vomit nails? Five true things—five untrue things—about The Rite, last weekend's No. 1 movie.

Amid the "reality" craze of today's entertainment zeitgeist, it's become easy to ignore all the notices for movies we're told are "based on true events." Lo, is any genre safe? Are we so in thrall to "truthiness" that we need our exorcist movies to be dressed up with the patina of realness, as well? Apparently so, at least judging by this weekend's box-office winner, The Rite, which—in addition to having lured Anthony Hopkins into its demonic plot soup—also brags about its connection to some actual things that happened once. (“Inspired by a true story,” is how the trailer phrased it.)

In this case, the cinematic tendril of truth snakes back to The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, a nonfiction book of reporting by Matt Baglio (who spent some time in Rome). So does Baglio's book actually feature nail-spitting 16-year-old pregnant hotties and red-eyed, black-maned horsies? We bought a copy and separated truth from fiction. (Note: For the purposes of this piece, we're assuming you've seen the movie and are curious about "what's real." Or haven’t seen it, and are reading this because a true movie about exorcism is funny to you, and you don’t care about spoilers. Fair warning!)

FIVE TRUE THINGS, AND FIVE UNTRUE THINGS, IN THE RITE:

There Was a Lecture-Style Course for Would-Be Exorcists in Rome: True!

In the prologue, Baglio reports that, in 2004, "a Vatican-affiliated University in Rome began putting together a groundbreaking course entitled 'Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation' with the intention of educating a new cadre of exorcists" [pg. 7]. Elsewhere, Baglio describes the university building where the exorcism course was given like so: "The massive six-story building—complete with its own church, auditorium, media room, library, classrooms, and dining hall—seems like a mini oasis in Rome, set back from the noisy streets by a large security wall and gatehouse" [pg. 22] Also, as in the movie, the course was attended by journalists (Baglio among them).

The Book's Apprentice Exorcist Is a Soulful, Young, Hottie Agnostic: Not True

The biggest fiction of the movie—that is, if you don't think the Devil is its biggest fiction—is Colin O'Donoghue's character of Michael Kovac. In Biglio's book, the apprentice exorcist isn't a dashing, brooding young dude doubting the scriptures—but rather is a 52-year-old priest looking for a new assignment after being term-limited in his California parish. "Father Gary" didn't grow up with a mercurial mortician who embalmed his mother, either. (Though Father Gary did spend a summer working with a mortician.) And in the book, the journalist doesn't ride off for a summer of moped-fueled romance with the apprentice exorcist either. Or at least if they did, Baglio left that part out.

Hopkins' Character Exists: True!

Hopkins' character, Father Lucas, is based on an actual priest in Rome who broadly resembles his movie counterpart. In Baglio's book, "Father Carmine de Fillips" is described as "a barrel-chested man of medium height... [h]e wore his hair short, and his three-inch beard was streaked with gray" [pg. 93]. He can't speak English though—and so he definitely doesn't contemptuously use words like "dude" "awesome," or "cool" as Hopkins (sadly) is required to do by the film's screenplay.

Possessed People Spit Nails: Not True (They Don’t in the Book, Anyway—Though Someone Swears It Totally Happened Once!)

Spitting up nails from Christ's crucifix is a big deal in the movie version of The Rite. The busty, pregnant teenage girl (not in the book either, btw) does it, Anthony Hopkins does it. It's like shaking hands, really. But Baglio's book only tells one story about nail-spitting—and it's hearsay. On page 125, a Franciscan tells a story about "a woman who vomited seven black two-inch nails—six of which had dissolved into a dark liquid." The Franciscan claims he kept the seventh nail, but doesn't show it to Baglio or anyone else in the story. Lamesies.

Black Toads Hang Around the Possessed: True!

On page 151, Baglio recounts a story told by Father Carmine, in which he "once saw a woman vomit a small black toad that was alive. When [Carmine] went to catch it, it fizzled away into black saliva." The image of the black toad is carried over into the movie, but in an entirely different context (when Hopkins discovers a black toad embedded within the interior of a young boy's pillow).

Exorcists Are at Risk of Becoming Possessed Themselves: Not True

In the movie, Hopkins and O'Donoghue both fall victim to the demon Baal's devilish influence. But the real-life Hopkins priest character dismisses this sort of thing out of hand. "One author had even gone so far as to suggest that if the exorcist touched the person during the exorcism, the demon could enter into him. Father Carmine scoffed at this. 'Absolutely not. It's not a disease,' he would later say" [pg. 164].

Video screenshot

Sometimes Possessed People Are Gross: True!

"In the lore of exorcism," Baglio writes, "perhaps nothing is as infamous (because it is so spectacular) as the victim vomiting strange objects or copious amounts of fluid. ... Father Carmine had a case wherein a woman vomited buckets of sperm" [pg. 151]. Vomiting in the film version usually takes the form of nails from Christ's crucifix, however (which Baglio confirms is a part of exorcists' lore).

Possessed People Can See Into Priests' Pasts: Not True

In the movie, the possessed teenage girl freaks out the exorcist in training by revealing knowledge of a catchphrase--"lickety split"—favored by his ex-girlfriend back in the States. (Really.) But not even exorcists think people possessed by the Devil have that kind of omniscience. "The Devil is also limited in his ability to know the secrets of the inner heart, a field strictly open to God, who is all-knowing, say the theologians," Baglio reports in the book [pg. 45].

"In Italy ... Every Exorcist Has A Cellphone": True!

That's actually a line from page 174 of Baglio's book. It's largely born out in the film version of The Rite, too. But even if all exorcists in the movie are on a cellular plan, they don't always have great reception; for an inconvenient stretch of time that lasts for the entirely of the film's third act, Father Xavier's (Ciarán Hinds) roaming plan issues keep him from stepping in to help with the young kids who are trying to exorcise Hopkins' demon.

Father Carmine Has Lots and Lots of Cats: Not True

In the movie, Hopkins' character, Father Lucas, is an Assisi-like dude of nature, with cats falling all over him in the courtyard. They are drawn to his mysterious power—and Hopkins doesn't much want them in his spooky house, either. But in the book, Father Carmine just has one unhealthy tabby cat. It goes wherever it wants.

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Seth Colter Walls has been a senior reporter in "The Culture" section of Newsweek since 2009. Previously, he worked as a writer and editor at The Daily Star in Beirut, and as a reporter in The Huffington Post's DC bureau. He regularly contributes essays to The Awl, and is a graduate of both NYU and Columbia University.