The movie, starring Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins and newcomer Colin O’Donoghue, is loosely based on Fr. Thomas’ experience traveling to Rome and studying under an Italian exorcist in 2005.
Set to hit screens on Jan 28., “The Rite” follows skeptical seminary student Michael Kovak (O’Donoghue), who is sent to study exorcism at the Vatican in spite of his own doubts. Anthony Hopkins plays a character by the name of Fr. Lucas – an Italian priest and veteran exorcist – who befriends Michael and helps open his eyes to reality of demon possession and the need for rite in the modern world.
The movie is based off of journalist Matt Baglio’s 2009 book, “The Rite: The making of a modern exorcist.” Baglio befriended Fr. Gary Thomas while in Rome and chronicled the priest’s studies at the Pontifical North American College and his eventual apprenticeship with a local exorcist.
In an interview with CNA on Jan. 19, Fr. Thomas – who currently serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Saratoga, California – explained that he served as a consultant for the film, particularly the scenes featuring exorcisms.
For a week in June last year, he said he was on the movie set working with cast members and producers. The priest added that “to their credit,” the directors and producers wanted the exorcism scenes to be as accurate at possible.
“The environment of that movie set was very reverential towards the Church,” Fr. Thomas said. “The producer and the director and the cast whom I worked with at the time were very open.”
Fr. Thomas said he recently saw a screening of the film alongside Anthony Hopkins at a New Line Cinema studio in Los Angeles. In his words, the movie has a “loose” basis in Baglio’s book.
One discrepancy Fr. Thomas pointed out was that he went to Rome as a 50-year-old seasoned priest with a desire to learn more about the rite of exorcism – hardly a cynical seminarian in the midst of a faith crisis.
Despite the differences, however, he called the film “very good.”
“The human side of the priesthood is very well developed,” he said, adding that the portrayal of “the institutional Church comes out very positively.”
Fr. Thomas said that given the reality of the subject matter, the experience was very powerful and even frightening for many involved in the movie.
He said that Hopkins, a professed Christian, and O’Donoghue – a practicing Catholic who serves as a lector at his parish in Dublin – “very much” believe in the existence of evil and feared possible demonic attacks as a result of working on the film.
“The producer and the two key actors all asked me privately if they could be attacked by doing this movie,” he said. “I said, I can’t absolutely say yes or no – which lead me to say ‘possibly.’”
“I do think that a person can get attacked, and I don’t know if they did but they were afraid,” he said. “I just tried to reassure them.”
Fr. Thomas also said that the intensely eery trailers for the film are “deceptive” in the sense that they make it look like a “horror movie,” which he says is inaccurate.
“There’s some very riveting scenes – I wouldn’t say they’re scary, but they’re a little startling.”
Ultimately, however, “this is a movie about faith,” said Fr. Thomas. “People are going to be very surprised.”