William Friedkin, who brought a new level of realism to cop movies via The French Connection, and then brought the devil to the masses in The Exorcist, captured a historic mass in his new documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth. Father Amorth, one of the most revered and respected experts on the Roman Catholic rites of Exorcism, cast out his last demon before he died on Sep. 16, 2016 at the age of 93.
Having been spoiled by recent documentary masterpieces, The Devil and Father Amorth plays out more like a cable reality episode but that’s not the point. Friedkin won an Academy Award in 1971 for directing The French Connection. He was nominated for an Oscar for directing the 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel The Exorcist, which was inspired by a true story of a boy known as Roland Doe, who was reportedly possessed by the Devil in St. Louis in 1949. Friedkin wanted to present a no-frills look at the real rites. “I doubt that there’s one percent of people on Earth who have seen an exorcism — a real Roman Catholic exorcism. Most of the priests had never seen it,” Friedkin says.
Don’t expect pea soup vomit, levitations, or spinning heads, but Friedkin captures odd voice phenomena. The possessed woman begins speaking with a different voice once the priest begins praying in Latin. Friedkin shot the whole scene on one small DSLR camera with no professional lighting present. The only soundtrack to the film is the ambient prayers of her parents, boyfriend, priests, and Amorth’s personal assistant.
Father Gabriele Amorth was not a fan of special effects, yet says in the doc that Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic is his favorite film. The priest comes across much less solemn than Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin, and certainly more jovial than Father Marcus in The Exorcist TV series on Fox. Amorth starts every exorcism by thumbing his nose at the Devil. He notes that Friedkin is bursting with health, this is an in-joke in exorcist circles. He starts every day amid pictures of the Virgin Mary and Padre Pio with morning prayers, adding one to his mentor, the late Father Candido Amantini and one to the 17th-century saint Joseph of Cupertino. Amorth had a wild youth. He was part of the Italian resistance against the fascists and now dedicates his life to liberating his flock from unwanted inhabitants. The 91-year-old priest performed thousands of exorcisms.
The documentary focuses on the exorcism of the young Italian woman Christina, which was performed in Italy in 2016. This is her ninth exorcism by Father Amorth performed on Christina, as she was noticed as troubled by a man named Roberto, the brother of a woman who was also exorcized by the priest. In the documentary, Friedkin says 500,000 Italians out of a population of 60 million, have undergone exorcisms. Roberto noticed Christina at Mass acting similar to how his sister had, growling, crawling, and screaming during communion. The Devil does not like the Eucharist. Roberto brought Christina to Father Amorth in August of 2015.
Paranoia is rampant about the Devil’s influence. “The more you open up yourself to thinking about this stuff, the more room you allow for the supernatural power of the demon to come in,” Amorth warns at one point. Bishop Robert Barron from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles admits he would never “get in close with the Devil” like Father Amorth. It’s just too dangerous. It requires a special elevation of the spiritual development.
You have to believe it to go through it, the documentary admits when it comes to possession. The religious community considers possession to be a spiritual disease. Demonic possession is a cultural phenomenon, whether the medicine-dispensing psychotherapists take a position or not. Cultural psychiatry casts the phenomenon as a placebo response to the environment the sufferer grew up in. A Christian sees the Devil. Devout Muslims, Hindus or other followers would interpret the phenomenon through their own upbringing.
When Amorth asks who is inside Christina, she answers “we are armies,” and “we are legion.” When he asks who he is speaking to, she says, “Io Sono Satana.” There is a possibility Christina has seen too many movies, yet then there’s the claim she was seen slithering around on the floor, with her belly swollen like a balloon and strengthing beyond her weight class. At first they think she’s out of her mind, which may have been a good guess as neuroscientists later point out, but at the time they are distracted. It takes four people to hold her down.
The nervous system remembers everything, the neurosurgeons explain. The experts include Itzhak Fried MD, a Professor of Neurology at the Tel Aviv Medical Center in Israel who has the bandages to prove it. He looks like he duked it out with the Devil himself. While the experts agree that it is unlikely brain surgery would be better for the spiritual disease Christina is suffering from, they do offer likely alternative causes. Tumors in the left cerebral lobe can cause hyper-religious experiences, and there is a condition called dissociate trance disorder, which can be the root culprit.
But Friedkin accepts possession a little too easily, given the ambiguous findings of the assembled academia. Just because we don’t understand the supernatural, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, he counters. The Devil and Father Amorth runs only 68 minutes and pads its footage sparingly. Friedkin revisits Georgetown locations like the house on Prospect Street that was used for exterior shots in The Exorcist, and the staircase where Father Karras plunged to his death. Friedkin has a thing for steps, he shoots a whole segment to explain the Scala Sancta, or Holy Stairs, which includes stones from praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, which Jesus Christ stepped on his way to trial during his Passion. There is also a brief interview with the late author William Peter Blatty.
This writer noticed one detail while watching that is not remarked on in the film. When Father Amorth confronts the devil with prayers to God or Jesus, the Devil in the footage is derisive, laughing and taunting the spiritual officiant. But the Devil retreats and cowers to any entreaty to the Blessed Mother. The Devil had the audacity to tempt the son of God, but his mother would ring his ears and wash his mouth out with soap on the first blasphemy. The Devil knows this. The Virgin Mary has been standing on the snake’s head for centuries in more than one iconic image.
Friedkin fudges the most cinematic scene of the film, witnessing Christina revert to a possessed state after the death of the priest who liberated her. He describes what he sees, which sounds very exciting, but inconveniently left his camera in the car during the proceedings. The Devil and Father Amorth doesn’t prove or disprove the phenomenon of possession, but it will stand as a historical document to the real rites of exorcism and perhaps a dying tradition.