BETTER THE DEVIL YOU KNOW
THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH (15)
Director: William Friedkin,
Screenplay: William Friedkin, Mark Kermode
Starring: Gabriele Amorth, Robert Barron, William Friedkin
Review: RJ Bland
Although Director William Friedkin has made a number of flops over the years, he has also been responsible for a few standout titles. The crime caper The French Connection (1971) and more recently. Killer Joe (2011) are included among that list. But without a shadow of a doubt, he is and always will be remembered for one film more than any other. It also might be the scariest film ever made. We are of course, talking about The Exorcist (1974). The beauty of it is that you don't even have to be religious to be petrified of the concept of the demonic. Heck, I'm a devout non-believer but I'd be lying if the film didn't touch a nerve. But there are many out there, especially of the Catholic persuasion, who believe that exorcisms and demonic possession are real. It's a subject that has intrigued Friedkin greatly over the years – so much so that his latest project, The Devil and Father Amorth, is a feature length documentary on the subject. So YGROY sat down to watch it, armed with a jumbo crucifix necklace and a bucket of holy water – you know, just in case.
Friedkin narrates the whole thing and begins by telling us that in Italy (a country of some 60m people), over half a million people see an exorcist every year. A quite amazing statistic if true. He then takes us back in time and briefly looks at the 1949 case that inspired William Peter Blatty's novel. He visits the house where the alleged exorcism took place and then visits the house (and staircase) that Exorcist fans would later recognise as the home of Regan and her mother in the 1974 film The Exorcist. We're then brought into present day where we learn about one of the most prolific exorcists of recent history, the elderly priest Father Amorth – who has performed thousands upon thousands of exorcisms during his lifetime. Amorth agrees to let Friedkin film the upcoming exorcism of a middle-aged female accountant called Christina who has been possessed/exorcised several times before but not been able to shake off her demons. But with one added caveat; Only Friedkin is allowed to be present at the exorcism to film it, no other crew are allowed...
Those viewers expecting (or hoping) that a real life exorcism is going to be more unsettling to watch than the fictionalised depiction in Friedkin's 74' movie will go away sorely disappointed. The exorcism sequence itself lasts just under twenty minutes (just under a third of the films running time) and although it starts off a little weird and creepy, soon becomes anything but. Friedkin watches on as Father Amorth sits with the fragile middle-aged woman (and pretty much all of her family by the looks of it) and attempts to rid the woman of her parasitic demon. There is obviously no head turning, levitating or projectile vomiting on display here. Just a woman yelling and thrashing around a bit. The lack of music and the rawness of the footage does add something to proceedings but after a few minutes it all becomes a bit repetitive. As a viewer, when you decide to go and make a sandwich half way through a 'real life' exorcism scene because you are pretty sure you won't have missed anything interesting in your absence, you know there is a problem. Not that they should have dressed it up at all – and actually the sound effects that have been added to make the possessed woman's voice sound demonic, only weaken the experience. The whole things is further undermined when after she has apparently been cured, Father Amorth then 'blesses' another family member. During this, Christina suddenly kicks off again, gurning and a shouting abuse but her exorcist and her family seem to be more interested in seeing the blessing of the family member than worrying that the demon has suddenly returned.
Things get a little bit more interesting for the final twenty minutes or so, as Friedkin discusses the case with medical and psychiatric experts after showing them the footage. You get a strong sense that he believes in the concept of possession and exorcism but he doesn't try to steer things in that direction at least and the thoughts of the professionals he talks to does add some credence to proceedings. However, some of this good will is lost when Friedkin recounts a meeting he has with the possessed woman in a church (he didn't have a camera on him at the time apparently). I think the intention is for this to be a unsettling climax to the investigation yet the fact that we have no evidence of this doesn't really help. Friedkin, as he does throughout the doc, does his best to instill a sense of power and seriousness into his story but it all feels a little over the top.
It's a shame because a documentary about possession by the guy that directed The Exorcist sounds like it should be a blast. You just hope that he still has plans to make something else (he is 82) as it'd be a bit of a shame if this is the last thing he is remembered for.