In the exorcism thriller The Rite, Anthony Hopkins plays an unconventional priest locked in mortal combat with Satan. But Hopkins, an agnostic, was uncomfortable with his character - he told us how he slipped a doubter's message into the film.
The Rite opens this weekend, and earlier this month we joined several journalists to interview Hopkins about his role in the movie. When asked what he thought about the movie's paranormal subject matter, Hopkins pointed to a particular line from the movie that he says encapsulates what he believes. And it certainly should - he actually wrote it for his character, the exorcist Father Lucas.
Here's how Hopkins explains the line:
There's a scene in the courtyard after the first exorcism, and I'm talking to the young priest [played by] Colin O'Donoghue, who in his character has grave doubts about [exorcisms]. He thinks it's all a bag of tricks, he thinks it's all mumbo jumbo and maybe there's no such thing, which is the debate: Is there such a thing as anthropomorphic presence of the devil or is it mental disturbance? That's the debate, I guess, in the film and probably in the world.
And after that I say to him the problem with skeptics and atheists, is that we never know the truth. We're always trying to find the truth. What would we do if we found it? And I asked [director Mikael Håfström] if I could write that line. To describe myself as an atheist, as a skeptic which makes the young priest turn [and say], "You?", and I go, "Oh yeah, every day I struggle. Most days. Some days I don't know if I believe in God or Santa Clause or Tinkerbell."
Though it doesn't necessarily contradict what Father Lucas says and does elsewhere in the film, the line certainly complicates his characterization as an untiring warrior against the forces of darkness. As Hopkins explains, it's a line that he wrote because it was important for him to find something of himself in Father Lucas, even if he had to put it there:
It gives a semblance of humanity to somebody who says they don't know...I wrote that. Not because I'm clever. I wrote it because I wanted to fit like a glove a piece of myself in that because that's what I believe. I don't know what I believe, myself personally.
Hopkins then offered his own thoughts on the dangers of being absolutely certain and that, while he himself seems to fall somewhere between atheist and agnostic, the real trick is to leave some room for doubt. Here's his eloquent explanation:
Anyone who says they know, like Colin the young priest [who] says, "I believe in the truth." Oh, the truth, oh yeah, lot of trouble that got us into, didn't it, over the last maybe thousand years? Hitler knew the truth, so did Stalin, so did Mao Zedong, so did the Inquisition. They all knew the truth and that caused such horror. Certainty is the enemy.
It's like anyone saying "the debate is over." Who says it's over? "The debate is over. We know." We? Who? Human beings, we know nothing. And someone says, "But are you an atheist?" Well, I don't know what I believe. But who would I be to refute someone like [German pastor Dietrich] Bonhoeffer who sacrificed his life for his church and ended up in Flossenburg being executed by the Nazis? The great martyrs who died at the stake, destroyed for their personal beliefs. So who am I to refute anything?
"I would hate to live in a world of certainty. Have a closed circuit, a windowless room where I know for certain; like Jean Paul Sartre's [idea] that we're living in Hell, a closed dungeon. I'd rather live with uncertainty because Socrates was told that he was the wisest man in Athens and he said, "Well that's not likely." So he went around looking for people who were wiser than him. And he found one who said, "I'm glad I don't know anything." I think it was Plato who said "Be kind because everyone is fighting a great battle." Whatever the Devil is or is not, I think when we turn our backs on our own frailty and our own humanity and say we know for certain, we know the truth – we are in trouble."
It should be pointed out that this speech was completely unprompted and totally off the cuff, because Anthony Hopkins is awesome. The Rite opens nationwide this Friday.