Thursday, October 11, 2018


The first thing that's hard to believe about William Friedkin's documentary is that more than forty years passed before the director of The Exorcist was invited to witness an actual exorcism. Once the opportunity arose, Friedkin made it the occasion for a meditation, at times searching and at times utterly credulous, on the potential real-world benefits of exorcism. He was invited to Italy to witness the pre-eminent exorcist of the age, the nonagenarian Fr. Gabriele Amorth, in his ninth session with a woman named Cristina. It looks nothing like Friedkin's visualizations of William Peter Blatty's novel. Cristina is surrounded by an extended family as Amorth, who died before the film was released, does his thing. Blatty is constrained by Amorth's forbidding of a film crew of cinematic lighting, but his digital video long-take approach seems appropriate to the material, though his cinema-verite presentation of the exorcism is marred by his obvious resort to enhanced sound effects whenever Cristina starts ranting. Of course, she's incapable of the contortions or levitations of pop legend, but it is unsettling to see her thrashing about and playing the devil at random moments during the session. She says nothing outrageous -- or nothing outrageous was translated -- unless you're still outraged by people claiming to be the devil, or "legion," or whatever. For all that, it seemed, especially with the family around, more like an exotic therapy session than a struggle with the forces of darkness.

Digressing, Friedkin interviews a number of reputed experts in various related fields, from the author of a scholarly history of the devil to medical specialists who debate whether Amorth's work can have a genuine therapeutic effect. The film is at its best here, steering away from sensationalism to suggest that there may be some worth to exorcism, perhaps on a placebo level, apart from its spiritual pretensions, though it was Amorth's own policy not to exorcise anyone who could be diagnosed with psychological issues. There are reasons, detailed in his Wikipedia listing, to question whether Amorth was the best judge of his own work, though Friedkin tends to take his claims on, well, faith. His film has ultimately limited value as a documentary, compared to an essay film, because it fails to appraise either Amorth or Cristina objectively. I especially missed the lack of background to Cristina or her family that might suggest more mundane reasons for her odd, attention-seeking behavior. Instead, Friedkin goes in an even more sensationalist direction, telling a yarn about an unfilmed encounter with Cristina and her boyfriend in a creepy church in which she went apeshit and the boyfriend threatened the director with physical violence. It's hard not to call bullshit on that bit of business, but Friedkin is probably betting that no one will care enough to try to corroborate the Cristina story. There's an "evil wins" implication here, underscored by the facts of Amorth's final illness, but The Devil and Father Amorth is really too slapdash to make any strong impression. Nevertheless, I found it entertaining on a barnstorming level, a bit of exploitation hucksterism that seems more like something from The Exorcist's own time than the work of the director's old age.

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