Admittedly, if the mind truly believes that a demon, or even the devil himself, has taken over one’s soul, being surrounded by spiritual professionals and a group of other believers working overtime to cast Satan out might show actual physical results. Not a red dude with horns invisibly slithering out of someone’s body, but some sort of psychological solace in the form of spiritual interference. Just look at Italy: Every year, over half a million people there seek the services of an exorcist. If these sessions didn’t yield results, why is the demand so high?
Before his recent passing, Father Gabriele Amorth was the superstar of exorcisms in Italy. It’s not surprising that his favorite film was The Exorcist, which spurred on a friendship between Amorth and director William Friedkin. Amorth trusted Friedkin so much that he allowed him to film one of his exorcisms, the ninth attempt, in particular, to exorcise the devil out of a woman who’s seemingly suffering from some major neurological disorder. Make no mistake, the 20-minute chunk of raw footage that lands square in the middle of this barely-over-one-hour feature is the main reason for this film to exist.
First, Friedken explores the origins of The Exorcist. Anyone who’s seen even one of the hundreds of documentaries about the making of that classic—the story of that production, from inception to release, is pretty much ingrained in everyone’s heads by now—will not find anything new here.
From there, we jump to the main attraction. Friedkin wasn’t allowed any other crew member to film the exorcism session, so the whole thing looks like rehearsal footage, complete with auto focus adjusting every couple of minutes. This raw presentation, without any background music or sound and visual effects, is what makes the experience so chilling. That said, it’s hard to sell a 20-minute home video of a priest and a bunch of believers in a small hospital room continuously yelling at “the devil” to leave the body of a woman who’s screaming and struggling for dear life, so Friedkin pads the runtime with interviews with priests and neurologists, though he knows that the meat of his film is the exorcism footage, leaving the rest underdeveloped. Just when you think the discussions are penetrating some interesting medical meeting point between science and religion, Friedkin cuts to yet another detail about the exorcism video. It bears an overall feeling that we’re watching a work in progress.
Friedkin either should have included the entire uncut footage, which may not have been feasible depending on its length, or he should have cut it down more significantly. The sequence starts strong but gets exhaustingly repetitive: Father Amorth mumbles prayers, the woman screams, her loved ones contain her, repeat. And no, “the devil” never comments on Father Amorth’s mother’s fellatio skills while she’s residing in hell.
The section that follows the exorcism is the most fascinating. Friedkin shows the footage to world-class neurologists, asking them if this is all a crock or if it’s actually the work of the devil. What he gets is a refreshing middle ground. They agree that the woman is suffering from neurological issues, some of which they diagnose on the spot, but can’t also dismiss the mental power such a session would have on an individual with deep and unshakable faith. One neurologist connects it to the experience a secular person might have with a therapist. In both cases, no medicine is being delivered to the body, yet the patient can significantly alter their mental state through human interaction alone.
When Friedkin finally describes a frightening follow-up meeting he conducted with the possessed woman, he couldn’t record the interaction, so he relies on filming an empty church. This finale undermines the self-seriousness of what came before. It’s obvious how passionate Friedkin is about Father Amorth’s work, and it’s certainly an intriguing subject. A level headed and well-paced documentary about exorcisms in the modern age, their attempts to heal neurological disorders, whether or not they’re helpful or harmful for the patient’s recovery, would have been more than welcome. Especially if delivered by William Friedkin, the man who directed the ultimate masterpiece about the subject. Unfortunately, The Devil and Father Amorth is not that documentary.
Director: William Friedkin
Starring: William Friedkin, Gabriele Amorth
Release Date: April 20, 2018
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.