‘The Devil and Father Amorth’ Review
In 1971, William Friedkin directed one of my all-time favorite films, The French Connection, for which he won the Oscar for Best Director. But that’s not the movie which entrenched him as a cinematic legend. Two years later he directed The Exorcist, a film that, 45 years later, still regularly appears at or near the top of most “Best Horror film” lists. He explores the exorcism subgenre genre once again in The Devil and Father Amorth.
For most of his adult life (he’s now in his 80’s), Mr. Friedkin has been associated with exorcisms, and he kicks off this documentary by confessing that he will be attending his first ever actual exorcism…and will be filming the ceremony. It’s a ritual very few of us have ever witnessed, and we learn that more than 500,000 Italians seek exorcisms from a priest each year. The director seems very anxious to take us along on his journey.
We get interviews and footage from multiple associated folks: Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of The Prince of Darkness and other satanic novels; William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist; a young Los Angeles priest who simultaneously expresses skepticism while stating he wouldn’t want to get that close to the devil; and a couple of neurosurgeons and psychiatrists. There are also interviews with a brother and sister recalling her experience of having a liberating exorcism performed on her, and the titular Father Gabriele Amorth – one of the most beloved figures in the Catholic Church. He was Head Exorcist for the Diocese of Rome for more than 30 years.
Whether the movie works for you or not (whether you believe it’s real) likely depends on the interview we neither see nor hear. Mr. Friedkin’s build up is to the exorcism he attends as Father Amorth performs the 9th exorcism on ‘Cristina.’ It’s May 1, 2016 and there are perhaps 12-15 people in the room, including Cristina’s parents and boyfriend. She has struggled with “demonic possession” for years, and the footage is quite startling – especially the audio of the guttural voice from such an innocent looking lady. It’s also Father Amorth’s 91st birthday and he literally thumbs his nose at the devil. It’s after this ceremony where Friedkin claims he was to interview Cristina in a local church. Inexplicably, he doesn’t have his camera, so we only hear him tell of the horrific events.
Mr. Friedkin directs the film (co-written with noted film critic Mark Kermode) and also acts as our guide through the rituals and beliefs associated with exorcisms. There is a bit of a “Dateline” vibe to the production, though it’s a bit surreal to hear Father Amorth proclaim to the evil spirits, “You are banned forever.” As has been the tradition for years, religion and science are at odds with the subject. Neurosurgeons label it “delirium,” while Psychiatrists call it “Disassociate Trance Disorder.” Is it merely a placebo effect caused by religious beliefs, or does Satan exist? Perhaps author Jeffrey Burton Russell says it best: “stay away from this stuff.”