Horror filmmakers are a privileged bunch. They get to confront evil without ever having to look it in the eye. Granted, the evils most horror films center on don’t actually exist, so confronting evil at arm’s length is about as near as most directors can hope to get (so to speak). That makes William Friedkin unique among horror filmmakers thrice over: He made The Exorcist, one of the indisputable masterpieces of horror cinema, in 1972, and in 2016 he secured permission to film a real-life exorcism. He could well be the only person in the history of exorcisms (and the history of the camera) to receive access to an otherwise extremely private ritual held behind closed doors in the Paulist Fathers’ residence in Rome. That’s a rare honor.
But rarer still is the opportunity for a horror auteur to witness the otherworldly events they’ve spent a chunk of their career exploring through their art. Friedkin may be the first to record an exorcism ceremony conducted by anyone, much less Father Gabriele Amorth, perhaps the most celebrated exorcist of the Diocese of Rome. But he’s definitely the first in his field to get up close and personal with the thing he’s known for exploring in his work. The Devil and Father Amorth, the 68-minute documentary he cobbled together from his experience in the room with Father Amorth, plus a handful of talking head interviews with neurosurgeons and psychiatrists, plus a quick trip down memory lane in Georgetown, where Friedkin shot The Exorcist 46 years ago (because how’s he going to make a movie about exorcism without visiting the Exorcist steps?).
The results are something of a mixed bag; it’s likely the documentary would play better as supplemental content on a future high-end Blu-ray release of The Exorcist, or perhaps as a lead-in to a midnight movie screening. Friedkin’s genuine interest in his material helps the movie chug along without flagging or overstaying its welcome, but it’s Father Amorth who snares our fascination. Watching him at work is something else. His subject, a woman referred to as “Cristina” (though this is clearly a pseudonym), is a repeat patient, having been exorcised by Father Amorth eight times prior to her exorcism in 2016. Friedkin didn’t merely film an exorcism, then, but the ninth and final exorcism of the possessed which feels considerably more significant. (Father Amorth, we learn, passed away shortly after filming at 91.)
Conversations with, among others, Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery at Tel Aviv Medical Center, Neil Martin, the chair of neurosurgery at UCLA Medical Center, and John Mazziotta, the vice chancellor at UCLA Medical Center, are enlightening enough; watching men of science confess their doubts and concerns to Friedkin raises eyebrows, their doubts and concerns couched not so much in the veracity of the account, but in the limits of traditional medicine and human understanding. Whether or not there’s a higher power at work, Cristina’s cultural framework dictates that possession is real. She believes it, Father Amorth believes it, and the many in attendance for her exorcism, Amorth’s assistants as well as Cristina’s family, believe it. As Mazziotta puts it, exorcism is like psychology: It works as long as the patient is open to participating in it, which is the most substantive idea The Devil and Father Amorth has to offer.
But of course we’re here for the exorcism. Friedkin is denied a crew or lighting for the shoot, and permitted only to use a hand camera. It’s possible that he applied some artistic flourishes to the scene after the fact, an embellishment perhaps to add drama Father Amorth’s conditions otherwise denied him: As Cristina writhes in her chair, she screams and snarls in Italian, a multitude of voices issuing from her mouth as she speaks. Imagine any depiction of demonic possession in media, whether film, television or video games, and you’ll have a pretty good model for what Cristina sounds like. True to Mazziotta’s words, though, we buy it, in part because it’s hard to accept that Friedkin would finesse his own footage, and in part because we’re open to the reality that Cristina’s possession is real. Why wouldn’t we be? We’re all Exorcist fans, after all, else we’d have little reason to be interested in the film.
Friedkin, for the most part, spares us his reactions and feelings on what he saw in that room, which is a shame: The Devil and Father Amorth being a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on so many levels, hearing his thoughts after the fact feels like an essential part of the exercise. (He does, at least, talk about his fascination with demonic possession, and good and evil, so there’s that.) Still, simply observing Father Amorth conduct Cristina’s exorcism is shocking and even revelatory. It must be seen to be believed, but really, it just must be seen, especially by horror nuts. Literally, you have never seen anything like this before, because nobody has ever been able to document anything like this before, but you’ve never seen, and probably never will see, horror bring the otherworldly to startling life as The Devil and Father Amorth does.
What if James Wan had structured The Conjuring as a documentary and investigated the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren through that lens? What if John R. Leonetti studied Annabelle the doll upfront instead of through fiction? What if Robert Eggers spent time hanging out with Satanists and modern-day witches? Curious as these suggestions may be, it’s almost impossible to picture them being as chilling as The Devil and Father Amorth is for the duration of the exorcism sequence. Friedkin is given a face-to-face introduction to the supernatural, or at least the potential of the supernatural, after chasing the supernatural for decades. Like the exorcism itself, that’s not something you get to see every day.