by Denyse O'Leary
The Exorcism of Emily Rose begins with SONY corp. warning viewers that the views expressed in the film are not the corporation's.
Diametrically opposite views are expressed in the film, so I suppose we can deduce that the corporation is somewhere in the middle? Or somewhere off to the side? Or nowhere? Or just waiting for the quarterly statement?
The reasons still do seem very unclear to me, but I now have a better idea of what unsettled the critics, and it is worth elucidating, in the interests of understanding the ID controversy.
The Lakeshore Entertainment film claims to be based on a true story but if so, it has been transplanted from Bavaria to the United States, with its details greatly changed. (Note: I have no way of knowing whether Internet resources on the Bavarian incident thirty-five years ago are reliable.)
The film begins at a dreary American gothic farmhouse on the lone prairie.
Everyone in the opening scene is depressed, with good reason. A 19-year-old girl Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) is lying dead upstairs, covered in bruises. After examining her, the visiting coroner announces to the Roman Catholic clergyman, Fr. Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) "Sorry, but I cannot state conclusively that this death was natural."
The girl had in fact died during an attempted exorcism, and a predictably huge public uproar follows. The Catholic archdiocese is mostly anxious to avoid getting stuck to any tar.
The priest himself, however, is strangely relaxed, even though he is charged with the serious criminal offense of negligent homicide, and is kept in jail in a dreadful orange track suit. He acts as though he knows something that makes the legal proceedings irrelevant.
(Note: The charge of negligent homicide means that the girl died because he failed to do things he should have done. The charge is not murder because there is no evidence he intended to kill her. Nor is it simple manslaughter because he did not act directly to bring about her death. Still, he may get ten years in jail if all goes badly for him.)
The prosecutor's office is faced with a dilemma: When prosecuting a priest, they need a "Christian" prosecutor, to avoid unpopularity. And they find one - Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), a guy who, we are told, practically lives at church.
A young woman lawyer, Erin Bruner ( Laura Linney), works for the firm that represents the hugely embarrassed Catholic archdiocese. An agnostic whose main life goal at the time is to make senior partner, she accepts the assignment purely for career reasons.
She begins by informing Fr. Moore that the Archdiocese does not want him on the stand (a priest on the stand?! Aren't things bad enough?!)
But Fr. Moore surprises her. He makes clear that his real concern is Emily Rose's story. He wants it told. He wants people to know what really happened to her, what she dared and what she suffered. He does not care at all what happens to him or what anyone thinks about him.
At length, Erin agrees to let him testify.
The story that gradually emerges is very curious indeed. Emily had been a happy and pious girl with a scholarship to teacher's college. But at the university she began to suffer from horrifying spells. She is diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) and given medication.
Somehow, however, the diagnosis does not quite fit. It becomes clear that the medics insist on the TLE diagnosis, not because it fits well but because the only alternative - that she might in fact be a victim of diabolical powers - is not conceivable to them, irrespective of evidence.
Emily begins to be destroyed by self-mutilation and involuntary contractions, among other bizarre phenomena, and Fr. Moore, her parish priest, attempts an exorcism, which results in her death.
The fundamental problem that drives the film is that the culture in which Fr. Moore is tried simply cannot accept the possibility that malign forces may have wanted to destroy Emily. That proposition cannot be accepted, irrespective of evidence introduced in its favour.
For example, even when an intelligent and personable anthropologist Dr. Adani (Shohreh Aghdashloo) takes the stand to talk about possession as an event that occasionally occurs in cultures around the world, we sense that her evidence cannot be accepted.
The only culturally acceptable solution for materialist culture is that Fr. Moore must accept responsibility for bringing about the girl's death by telling her that it was okay to quit taking her epilepsy drug (which was doing no good anyway). Everything else that happened can be discounted or denied. In other words, materialism has its superstitions and rigid thinking, as do other faiths, on occasion.
Fr. Moore accepts that.
The brilliant summation scene - easily the best scene in the film in my view - pits the prosecutor, a "man of faith" against the defense lawyer, a "woman of doubts."
But the man's faith is in a Christianity that Jesus Christ would certainly not recognize and the woman's doubts spring from the discovery of a reality of intentional evil his faith could never admit (even though, if one accepts the accounts of Jesus' life in the New Testament, he dealt with intentional evil regularly).
Indeed, prosecutor Ethan is the perfect picture of a widely admired type of prig whose soon-to-be ex-Christian culture has fully accommodated to materialism and cannot even consider any other possibility.
Emily Rose is a skilful horror flick, and I don't recommend it for children or old ladies like me. If you watch it, you may never feel the same way about 3:00 a.m. again. I mean, 3:00 a.m. used to just be a number on the insomniac's digital clock, right?
Intelligent design? The film's only significant relationship to the intelligent design controversy is the way it addresses the question of what we consider evidence. I think that's what so many critics picked up on. The film raises the question of what we are allowed to consider as evidence. That was disturbing, but maybe necessary.
- Is evidence all the things that actually happen or only the things that our belief system can accept?
- If the latter, how can we say that our belief system is completely grounded in reality?
- Must evidence be altered or reinterpreted in order to fit our definition of reality?
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).
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