I may have noted here before that a friend and I go to a movie almost every Tuesday night. I know that it's a self-indulgent extravagance, since I end up out more evenings with him than with my wife most months. But this way I'm conversant with popular culture -- and I can weed out any bad movie that she and I might have been interested in seeing. (Well, so I try to justify it, anyway.)
Last night we saw The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and I'm glad we did. (And this one I don't have to feel guilty about, because Kathy has no interest in seeing it.) The movie centers on the trial of a Roman Catholic priest who is brought up on criminal charges of negligent homicide in connection with the death of college-age girl whom he from whom he tried to exorcise demons after a period of her behaving increasingly strangely and self-destructively. The trial conflict focusses on whether the girl died primarily of medical causes, which the priest should then have prevented by forcing the girl into medical care, or "supernatural" causes, which the priest ultimately was unable to defeat and for which he would not be ultimately responsible.
We see sort of cartoon characterizations of the lawyers involved -- indeed, the concern of the movie is the trial more than the claimed demon possession. The prosecutor is a good, church-going, choir-member, Bible-reading (so he tells a witness and the jury) Methodist who will go from "tearing a witness apart on cross-examination" to Bible study at the church (where "he practically lives," according to a colleague) without setting a mustache hair out of place. He is trim, tightly dressed, and absolutely disdainful of any notion of "supernatural" powers or causes. In his summation to the jury, for example, he distinguishes between "facts" (which are properly the subject of judicial inquiry) and "belief" (which, of course, has nothing to do with "in here" -- i.e., in the courtroom). He was especailly cartoonish, I thought: I don't see that he could be much of a Methodist if he so neatly separates off his life of faith from his work as a prosecuting attorney -- but he is a wonderful send-up of the modern Liberal Protestant for whom faith is religion and life is life and the two really don't have much to do with each other.
The defense attorney, on the other (and ironic) hand is a hard-drinking, ambitious, tough lawyer who is fighting against the glass ceiling in her law firm by taking on and winning difficult criminal cases. (Laura Linney can act, but I was constantly distracted by how much she looks like Jennifer Anniston -- so I never did quite suspend disbelief about her.) She begins somewhat sceptical of the possession theory of the case, until she realizes that she is losing badly on the medical testimony. And once she begins to listen to her client (well, that's an issue: who really is her client -- but more later), she gets on board and begins perhaps to experience herself the assaults of darkness (as the priest calls it). She even tracks down and brings in a very sophisticated Northwestern University anthropologist (trained at Yale and Oxford -- can you get more respectable?) to describe (in the most gorgeous, Eva-Gabor-like accent) the worldwide phenomenon of demonic possession and who is able to opine that it was demons, not medical causes, that were the ultimate cause of the girl's death.
What we are meant to appreciate, and I guess I can, is the irony of the positions adopted by the two lawyers. In one corner is the church-going prosecutor. This person of faith utterly denies any notion of the influence of the supernatural in daily events. His is a world in which courts deal with "facts" -- which are not interpretations, but things you can get your hands on, undeniable, scientifically verifiable. Anything incapable of a physical explanation is out of bounds. He is merciless on insisting that if a doctor diagnoses it, it is a fact; there can be no more to it. (The movie is clearly on the attack against the mythification of medicine -- the scientific trump of any explanation of anything dealing with the human body.)
In the other corner, the defense attorney begins from a position of scepticism and may be moved to an appreciation that "there are more things "twixt heaven and earth than are dream'd in your philosophy." She has a heart, if hidden among intra-firm wrangling and soothed with a couple of dry martinis (but Tanqueray? -- really). She argues finally, in the real value of the movie, that what are posited as facts are not "facts." "This trial is not about facts," she says. "It is is about possibilities."
Facts, by her description, allow no room for possibilities. Can she say that Emily was possessed? No, but is it possible? Can she deny that Emily was epileptic (as claimed by the prosecution's expert witnesses)? No, but is it possible that she was not?
Aside from the nice rhetoric, by which she hammered home the jury's responsibility to decide "beyond a reasonable doubt," it is a lovely challenge to the philosophical categories most of us are encouraged to live by. Are "facts" facts? What is an undeniable fact to me that influences how I act and react, may be idle or foolish speculation to you. For example, it is a fact for me that one man rose from very real, factual death. That influences how I view the world, how I make decisions, how I treat people. But for many "fact" that has absolutely no basis "in fact" and cannot enter into any consideration of how I live in the world. But on the other hand, can we live in a world in which all people's delusions and madnesses must be respected just because they are "factual" to that person? Must we resort to scientific, supposedly objective calculation to resolve the conflict. (See Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions if you think so.)
There was meat and drink in this movie, despite its flaws. And the flaws are Legion. The efforts to portray demonic possession were rather silly. This moviemaker is not good at horror movie stuff, and it diminishes what could have been a thoughtful movie on the subject to restrict the display of demonic possession to distorted limbs and shrieking voices. The auteur may have been restricted by the "factual basis" of the movie -- there was, apparently a real-life Emily Rose, and this movie is based on a book about her and her death written by the real-life attorney for the priest.
And the legal business is almost laughable. For one thing, there was inadequate basis for the jury's verdict (which I won't give away, I hope). Then there's the hotshot, brilliantly skilled defense attorney who only begins working with her client -- indeed, who doesn't even meet her client -- until after the trial has already begun and the jury impaneled! What we saw of the testimony was poorly presented -- and the cross-examination on both sides was pathetic. (Am I right that the DSM has been replaced by DSM-II? The prosecution relies on DSM -- and to cross-examine on the basis of facts not elicited into evidence.) I think I counted about 10 breaches of the canons of legal ethics. And I was really put off by the blatant conflict of interest that the defense's law firm seemed unaware of: They were hired by the Archdiocese to defend the priest. But they were really hired to minimize damage to the Archdiocese's reputation. The law firm never, so far as I could determine, decided who their client really was -- and that fact becomes clear later in the movie when the lawyer and her boss disagree over strategy and who gets to call the shots in the trial. The Archdiocese wanted the lawyer to arrange a plea bargain or, absent that, to control the court strategy -- even though that strategy was directly opposed to the best interests and wishes of the client whose freedom was at stake. In short, it's lamentable that the producers couldn't spend a few thousand dollars to consult a trial lawyer on the trial aspects.
They could have dropped a few dollars on a theological consultant, too -- or, if the "consultant" was a theological consultant, then one who knew about the Roman Catholic practice of exorcism. For instance, my understanding is that the Church (perhaps each diocese) designates an exorcism specialists and does not allow any old parish priest to give it a try. Here, however, the priest was allowed to go forward even though he knew nothing about the exorcism rite before he tried it. And there were other nits to pick.
Nevertheless, Brad and I found stuff to talk about from the movie, and that usually means that there's enough in a movie for me to recommend it. So I do -- if only to further conversation about the interrelation of so-called "facts" and "belief" or of the possibility of the "supernatural's" being involved in daily life.