Director: William Friedkin
Writers: William Friedkin & Mark Kermode
Starring: Gabriele Amorth & William Friedkin
Rating: Not Rated
In 1973, director William Friedkin shocked the world with his terrifying horror film The Exorcist. The movie offered a powerful vision of superstition and religion coming into contact with the modern world and remains one of the most influential horror films of all time. While the film’s legacy is contentious as some people argue that it hasn’t held up in the forty-seven years since its premiere, its legacy is unquestionable for the sheer impact it had. Now this year the same director William Friedkin returns to reexamine the subject of his most famous film with The Devil and Father Amorth, a documentary depicting a supposed real-life exorcism with the late Father Gabriele Amorth.
Violence/Scary Images: A woman is held down in a chair as a demon is exorcized from her.
Language/Crude Humor: Minor language.
Drug/Alcohol References: None.
Sexual Content: None.
Spiritual Content: Long discussions on the nature of reality, the existence of demons, and the supernatural.
Other Negative Content: None.
Positive Content: Interesting philosophical discussion about the nature of evil and reality and the scientific legitimacy of exorcism.
Directors returning to the territory that made them famous is well-trodden territory in the history of filmmaking. Most directors get famous for a single movie and then wade off into new territories for the duration of their career only to revisit the subjects that made them famous late in life. You can see this career trajectory with filmmakers like Ridley Scott (Prometheus), Steven Spielberg (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), James Cameron (Avatar), and now Quentin Tarantino who’s upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood appears to be a quasi-revisitation of the style and structure of his first masterpiece Pulp Fiction. William Friedkin’s return to horror seems like a kind of inevitable conclusion to his vital career. While he’s directed dozens of films, most recently with his well-received 2012 film Killer Joe, his career has been utterly defined by the release of his critically acclaimed horror film The Exorcist. With this newest documentary, Friedkin is once again dipping into the well of his most popular film to reexamine its ideas.
I’ve been very interested in seeing this since I first heard about it in passing. I’d been previously aware of the world-renowned Father Gabrielle Amorth prior to his passing in 2016 and hearing that Friedkin would be reexamining the themes of The Exorcist via a supposed real-life exorcism with the legendary exorcist, I knew this was something I had to see. The Devil and Father Amorth is a personal passion project from the now aged director looking back on one of his greatest achievements and revisiting it through less skeptical eyes. It seems that in the duration of time between both films Friedkin lived a full life and has seemingly converted to Christianity late in his life.
For him getting the chance to experience the subject matter of his most vital contribution to culture clearly means the world to him. The best thing that I can say about the movie is that it’s truly a William Friedkin film. It’s something he desperately wanted to express and he poured his heart and soul in it, largely being one of the film’s seemingly only technicians during a lot of the interviewing scenes where we see Friedkin in the reverse camera personally holding a camera and interviewing his subjects. It’s basically a one-man stage show.
The Devil and Father Amorth for all of its passion, introspection, and fascination is a solid miniature documentary that is sadly drowning in hyperbole and bizarre directing decisions. The film’s centerpiece, being the actual purported exorcism we’re meant to witness, is effectively ruined by the way it’s presented with obviously fake sound effects and vocal enhancement that is meant to evoke the aesthetics that his previous film used. Maybe he just wanted to emphasize how it felt to be in the presence of something like that but as the people I was watching the film said, it’s hard to take this moment seriously if you have to add fake elements for effect. Seeing a real-life exorcism should be shocking and primordially emotional enough to have us at the edge of our seats. The film further damages itself by dragging the scene out for an excruciatingly long time. By all means, this scene should have the same emotional resonance as watching Regan’s outbursts in The Exorcist did but the poor editing and sound effects just drain the scene of everything.
The remainder of the film’s runtime follows much of the same path as his previous film. Friedkin sorts through a series of interviews with neuroscientists, doctors, and theologians trying to come to terms about the nature of the video he shot during the exorcism. The film offers a lot of back and forth from both sides with digressions on whether or not people without religious backgrounds are capable of being possessed and in what circumstances an exorcism can be understood to be legitimate. This marks the most interesting stretch of the film as we just get to listen to intelligent people bounce off ideas back and forth and debate big questions.
The steam the film does manage to build up, however, is lost by the end when late in the film the twist appears. The twist calls a great deal of the film’s authenticity into question when Friedkin asks us to bear with the film and trust that he’s not embellishing the truth considering the lengths the film seeks to emphasize moments for the duration of the film it’s hard to stem critics who would outright deny that any of this is legitimate. Friedkin should have treated this moment with vulnerability, putting himself and his reputation on the stop and setting him center stage begging to the audience to believe what it is he is claiming happens. Instead, it makes the same mistake as before. It plays up the scene for effect.
Billy Graham was once consulted about his opinion of The Exorcist and he fascinatingly opined that the depiction of evil was dangerous and something that Christians ought to avoid. Even C.S. Lewis has opined the object in regards to his book The Screwtape Letters in that putting himself in the headspace to write it was spiritually taxing. I’ve considered that a great deal and The Devil and Father Amorth discusses the idea too. In the film historian and scholar Jeffrey Burton Russell goes as far to state that his exposure to satanic ideas during his life of research was dangerous and something he was reluctant to ever revisit. Thus seeing this film acknowledge the reality of evil and address it is fascinating. It’s a rare moment of introspection in the horror genre. This is something I’ve agonized over too as I truly love films like The Exorcist and other dark horror films. They’re flawed movies by flawed people wrestling with spirituality.
The whole purpose of my Flawed Faith series of articles is to celebrate the minor victories of the lost as they grow spiritually towards home. That’s why I believe this film is so special even with all of its flaws. The Devil and Father Amorth is above all a personal journey. It’s not afraid to ask difficult questions and while it’s clear that the movie is hoping to evoke our sense of the supernatural it bizarrely is more interesting just watching people discuss their complicated ideas than it does by letting us see the supernatural in practice.
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