Italian Documentary Explores Real-Life, Contemporary Exorcisms

Federica di Giacomo - Venice Film Festival - Getty - H - 2016
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Federica Di Giacomo explores how exorcists in the Catholic Church operate today in her award-winning film 'Libera Nos.'

The topic of exorcism has long fascinated Hollywood. From early horror movies and TV shows, the genre has received a new wave of contemporary fans with new shows including Outcast and The Exorcist revival. But the often gory, horror genre is nothing like the real-life practice of exorcism that has been around for centuries in the Catholic Church.

Federica Di Giacomo explores real-life exorcisms in her documentary Libera Nos in a small Sicilian town where every day Franciscan Father Cataldo Migliazzo has dozens of people claiming demonic possession, lining up to be healed inside the local church. The film explores the exhausting work of the local priests who are called on to be healers. It delves deep into the growing phenomenon of why more and more priests are needed to fulfill the church’s growing exorcist needs.

The documentary took her three years to make, and she was rewarded with the Venice Horizons Golden Lion for best film last year. THR spoke with Di Giacomo about what interested her in the topic and why she sees the phenomenon of this particular type of healing growing throughout the world.

And how did you come upon this story?

I was living in Sicily and at the time I read in the news about the need to educate exorcist priests there. I was interested in the psychology of everyday life. So it sounded to me quite interesting and also quite absurd. Because how can you teach someone how to deal with the devil? So from this point I began the research and I met a lot, a lot of exorcist priests in Sicily.

We tried to understand what was going on. So we talked to them and they told us that the phenomenon wasn’t something of the past, but was an increasing phenomenon. There were a lot of people that felt themselves to be possessed, so they asked the priest and the church to be delivered. And so the church teaches these educational courses to be prepared. I’m not Catholic, so I was interested in why people go there, and how can they feel the symptoms.

It was a kind of key metaphor to enter in the contemporary question about illness, about the border between psychic and spiritual illness. And it was also about the obsessive search for a healer.

So the church is now teaching priests to become exorcists all over Italy?

Yes. The course is regional, but also there is an international course in Rome, at the Vatican, and there are exorcists increasingly in all parts of the world, especially also in France, Spain and the U.S.

The demand for exorcists is increasing. And the priest told me that many times this is the last resort. It’s the last chance for a lot of people after going through psychiatrists, psychologists, normal doctors, alternative medicines, and also a lot of magicians, to try to escape from illness.

What do you think this says about society that there are more people asking for exorcisms today?

I think that there is a kind of irrational part of them that is pushing through, and that all these kind of remedies have a lot to do with control of ourselves. Sometimes there is something that is not so easy to cure. There are a lot of people taking pharmaceuticals for psychiatric problems. They can restore themselves, but it doesn’t give meaning to their lives. And now I think there is a kind of search for this meaning, because we lost a lot of things that gave meaning to our lives.

There are a lot of possibilities, but we are alone. So in this kind of absurd, post-modern pain where there are so many things to try, people are beginning to think that also exorcists can be a solution.

Are people using exorcists as a solution for mental illness?

I think of course, there are a lot of people who have mental illness who go there. But I think many times there are people who go there who are not mentally ill. I am not a psychiatrist, but in a way a lot of people are quite normal in their everyday life and then they explode. So if there is a psychological category for this I cannot say, because I do not know what it is. But I think we cannot explain everything with psychology.

How did you approach the filming of the exorcisms, which were often very violent and extreme?

The sense of my film is to tell a story about contemporary life, so it’s not about exorcists in a strict way or about possession in a strict way, but I wanted to show more people that are more similar to us, because this is what I saw, exorcism in everyday life. But also there is something really strange, some kind of dissociation, a kind of alienation. So for me I didn’t want to put the point if it’s mental or not, but the point is why many people have this disassociation. In this film they call it possession, but in a way it can also be seen in another way. It’s a way to push out something that is not resolved.

Why do you think people are so interested in exorcism today?

I don’t know. It’s because there is really kind of an increasing phenomenon, I think. A lot of people from different parts of the world are hearing of this. In a way I was not interested. I was frightened hearing about the horror show. Because horror comes from movies. But then I discovered there is some kind of story I can tell about reality, human beings and not the paranormal.

And that was interesting to me, the human part of the priest. Because the priests are nominated by the bishops, so they are not so prepared. So they do wrong things; they do good things; they are really human. It was an occasion to see them in a different way, and also to see the humanity of people who are afraid to say that they are possessed in this society, but in church where they feel more protected they explode. So there was something really interesting about the rage.

It was good also because the church is beautiful and there is a kind of spiritual research even if you don’t share it, but I respect spiritual research. I respect also that the church has a kind of father that is listening to you, every time, every moment, for free. So this kind of research in this kind of society where everything is about money, it’s coming back to the father in a way, which is very tender.