'The Devil & Father Amorth': Film Review

Of more sociological than cinematic interest.
4/20/2018

'Exorcist' director William Friedkin gets to view the real thing in this low-budget documentary.

Having followed his 1971 masterpiece The French Connection with a second worldwide hit, The Exorcist, in 1973, William Friedkin has perennially returned to that demonic-pea-soup fountain. There was a 1979 theatrical rerelease, cropped to suit 70mm, then a tweaked version with new footage for TV in the '80s. We also got a theatrical "Version You've Never Seen" in 2000, in time to ride the DVD reissue wave; somewhere in there, Friedkin and the book's author, William Peter Blatty, briefly tried to make The Exorcist III together.

Now Friedkin cuts out the fictional middleman, traveling to Italy to film a real-life exorcism in The Devil & Father Amorth, which also serves as a mini-portrait of Gabriele Amorth, the late Roman Catholic priest who claimed to have performed more than 160,000 exorcisms. Though the doc's core footage is a valuable artifact for those with an interest in the subject, the director's interest in contextualizing it seems perfunctory at best, and his willingness to muck things up with B-movie effects taints the legitimate interviews he does get. Though it will be welcome in the context of a retrospective, the film would make the most sense as a bonus feature accompanying some future 4K home-video release of The Exorcist.

Addressing the camera directly as if he were shooting to replace Robert Stack in a rebooted Unsolved Mysteries, Friedkin explains that he came upon the rare opportunity to film an exorcism "completely by accident...or was it providence?" Amorth, it seems, had long asserted that The Exorcist was his favorite film, and that it more or less reflects the truth about his calling. (In Italy, we're told, 500,000 people see an exorcist every year.) The two men met, and the filmmaker asked the priest if he'd ever allow someone to film him. Amorth said he'd let Friedkin do it, but only by himself, shooting on a small video camera with a built-in microphone.

The subject, referred to here as Cristina, is an architect from a village near Rome who hasn't been able to work for some time. "Psychiatrists couldn't help because I had a spiritual disease," she says, and she has already undergone eight exorcisms that didn't cure her. (Individual prayer sessions are referred to as exorcisms, we learn, whether they're successful or not, and without regard to whether or not the subject is actually suffering a full-blown demonic possession.) Friedkin also speaks to a different woman whose own difficulties were cured by visits to the priest.

By the time we get to actual footage of the May 2016 ritual, older viewers may recall Geraldo Rivera's TV exploration of a sealed-up vault belonging to Al Capone, where tremendous buildup led to the discovery of... an empty room. This footage isn't quite that disappointing, but those hoping to see a 360-degree swiveling head or feats of superhuman strength should steer clear. Instead, we get Amorth calmly sitting beside Cristina in a room full of her loved ones, constantly praying while the woman shakes back and forth. Cristina grows more agitated, shriek-growling as the priest addresses whatever demon might be inside her, and thrashing against the men who are holding her arms. (But not grabbing, punching or biting them, as we might expect from a truly menacing entity.) Those inclined to believe will hear a multitude of voices in the sounds that come from her mouth; others, especially if they've heard the extraordinary sounds mortals have produced in avant-garde and throat-singing contexts, are unlikely to be convinced. And then, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, Amorth declares the woman freed. "Do you want some water?" he asks.

Friedkin brings this footage to an assortment of neurologists and psychologists, asking what they make of it, and gets some reasonable-sounding explanations. People are gripped by strange phenomena everywhere, they say, and in a deeply religious culture, strange maladies are interpreted as having a spiritual origin.

This would be an interesting subject to explore at length, with a host who didn't seem to be padding an opportunity for self-promotion with the trappings of science. Unfortunately, Friedkin goes overboard in the short film's final scenes, describing a second encounter with the possessed woman that was far more dramatic than this one. Conveniently, there were no cameras running at the time, so we'll have to accept it when the filmmaker introduces his harrowing tale with the words "This is my memory of what happened." Or not.

Production company: LD Entertainment
Distributor: The Orchard
Director: William Friedkin
Screenwriters: William Friedkin, Mark Kermode
Producers: Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon
Editor: Gary Leva
Composer: Christopher Rouse

68 minutes