Wednesday, September 14, 2005

On "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"

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.


Eric Lee said...

Most of what I know of exorcism as it is practiced in the Roman Catholic church comes from a book recommended to me by a friend called Hostage to the Devil, by Malachi Martin. Aside from my serious misgivings about how the book makes everything into a dramatic spectacle (Martin is indeed a gifted writer) while totally ignoring the subtle, spectacle-less true evil in our world in the form of greed and oppression-- from what I can tell, your thought about exorcism in the RC church requiring a specialist is correct.

It's a very formal and rigorous process because many of the proposed cases are in fact mental illnesses or other physical problems. I think he said that something like only 1 or 2 out of 100 cases turn out to be authentic, or something close to that.

If the stuff in Martin's book is true--he claims all the five cases in the book were true and based on actual recordings of performed exorcisms (but he scatters his own commentary through out)--then I'm not exactly sure what to do with it. As a Christian I'm not going to deny that Jesus and the apostles cast out demons and such, but I've never seen anything like it in the very least, nor do I care to look for it to see if it exists. What does concern me, and what I can see on a daily basis is the very veiled evil of greed and capitalism that affects the very least among us. I'm friends with the homeless people in my church and their situations are not by their choice, contrary to popular belief-- it's very much the structure of the system, the powers and principalities, that have in a sense put them where they are today.

I have nothing against Roman Catholics, and very much admire the theology in the RC church more and more every day, but I do know that my friend was trying to convert me to Roman Catholicism by suggesting this particular book, which I thought to be a bit odd. Anyway.



Camassia said...

Actually, we're up to DSM-IV by now. Though it wouldn't surprise me if they referred to it as just DSM without the numeral, for short. (Depends on the context though, which I can't tell from the post.)

I agree that people create some big sins all by themselves without demonic help, but I wouldn't discount the possibility that demons contribute to larger social problems. A lot of the homeless are mentally ill, for instance, and if some of that is of demonic origin it certainly makes a difference to people's lives.

Dwight P. said...

I wonder whether there might be some sort of continuum of evil, along which there is more or less free-will-like consorting with evil. On the one hand are the outrageous cases of demonic possession (which I've never seen, but about which I read in scripture -- with pigs going over cliffs and that sort of thing) and on teh other hand, the evils of Enron (and even WalMart). That sin may not entirely be accounted our sole responsibility is evidenced in the Lutheran confession that "I am sinful and cannot free myself." Sin is a force (or power) as well as a relationship as well as an action.

By this view, the absolution offered by a pastor is a form of exorcism (and here, I realize that I'm sort of playing with words -- perhaps unfairly). So, too, is prophetic preaching: Demons, come out of the exeutives at Northwest Airlines, and allow them to share their millions with the workers who make many times less than they. (Couldn't resist pouring salt in the bankruptcy wounds of NWA -- which is in bankruptcy because very well paid executives couldn't plan well enough to avoid bankruptcy.)

Brian said...


You might have been playing with words, but to mention confession and absolution as a type of exorcism is not all that far from the mark. After all, within the baptismal liturgy there is, what I see as a vestigial remain of an exorcism. "Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil and all of his empty promises?" (which of course leaves us to consider his not-so-empty promises... :) )

Exorcism is at its very heart, prayer in the name of Jesus. At the name of Jesus every knee will bend for he is the true authority. Exorcism is about the redemption of the world from all of the forces that seek to drive us away from God.

In The Parish

Anonymous said...

Actually, it's "I confess that I am in bondage to sin, and cannot free myself."

But I digress. Is a "fact" a fact? I suppose that would depend on what your definition of "is" is.

Nate said...

Hi Dwight. As a Catholic, let me go ahead and answer your questions about Catholic practice in this movie. You're right; only an exorcist is supposed to perform an exorcism in the Catholic Church, and there are certain spiritual and moral criteria that a priest must meet in order to be an exorcist. This is not to say that all priests do not possess the ability to perform an exorcism -- on the contrary, the sacrament of holy orders does in fact give all priests the capacity to perform an exorcism. But in practice, any old priest wouldn't be doing it, an authorized exorcist would be doing it.

Based on what I saw in the movie about the girl's condition, I doubt that any diocese (let alone any archdiocese) would have authorized an exorcism. Authorization for exorcisms are now very rare in the Catholic Church, and in fact there are very few exorcists. Whether or not this is a good development is debatable, but it is reality. No exorcist would ever have encouraged her to go off her medication, either; and if there had been any possibility that it was a physical illness that could be treated by modern medicine, an exorcism would not have been authorized.

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