In 1973, director William Friedkin adapted William Peter Blatty's bestselling novel "The Exorcist" for the screen. The film shocked the industry by becoming an international phenomenon and the movie's impact continues to resonate with audiences of all ages even today. In 2016 Friedkin decided to return to the subject of demonic possession by personally filming the rite of exorcism performed by a priest, Father Amorth, the Chief Exorcist of the Diocese of Rome. The result is his new documentary "The Devil and Father Amorth", which has enjoyed some limited art house screenings while simultaneously being released on DVD. Before we go any further, it is appropriate when covering a film of this type for the reviewer to state his/her personal beliefs or lack thereof in terms of the subject matter. After all, Friedkin does the same in his film, stating that he is predisposed to believe in the possibility of demonic possession. I'm not. Friedkin is clearly a man of religious faith. I'm not, having happily lived most of my life as an agnostic who keeps an open mind but who has never seen an inkling of evidence that a higher being presides over the universe. So there we are....with one additional caveat. Although I have never met William Friedkin, I have conducted two separate, extensive interviews with him for Cinema Retro regarding his films "Cruising" and "Sorcerer", both of which I believe were very underrated. Based on those interviews, I can say that I like Friedkin and greatly respect him as a filmmaker.
With those explanatory remarks out of the way, let's delve into "The Devil and Father Amorth". Friedkiin acts as an on camera host of the movie, which opens with some brief archival interviews with William Peter Blatty, who relates that he was a student at Georgetown University in 1949 when he read a remarkable account in the Washington Post about a 14 year-old boy who had undergone the rite of exorcism. Other respected news outlets picked up on the story and it became a sensation. Blatty was fascinated by the alleged possession and hoped to write a non-fiction account of the incident. However, the priest who performed the exorcism refused to release the identity of the boy or his family and imposed upon him to respect their privacy. Blatty went the fictional route and turned the victim into a 12 year-old girl. The rest, as they say, is history- except that over the decades, the incident has been studied by skeptics who point out that there is scant evidence that the exorcism involved anything other than a boy who had a vivid imagination and that he may well have simply staged the incidents for those predisposed to believe in possession. (The boy's late aunt was a "spiritualist" who had influenced the boy's interest in the supernatural.) Whatever one thinks of the historical facts and theories, Blatty's book was a chilling page-turner and Friedkin's film version would motivate even the most headstrong skeptic to sleep with a nightlight on. Friedkin's documentary has some early scenes of him returning to actual locations from "The Exorcist". The action then shifts to Rome, where he introduces us to Father Amorth, then 91 years-old and proud of his position as Chief Exorcist, claiming to have performed the ritual thousands of times. Friedkin also interviews a woman who underwent the rite and who claims to have been saved by Father Amorth. Her brother, who went on to become Father Amorth's assistant, relates disturbing and fantastic accounts of his sister's alleged possession. Father Amorth gave Friedkin rare permission to film an actual exorcism on the provision that there would be no artificial lighting employed or any crew members present. Friedkin agreed to shoot the rite himself using just a small, hand-held camera.
The subject of the exorcism is Christina, a 46 year-old architect who has been bedeviled by what she claims are frequent instances in which she becomes possessed by a demon. She claims not to remember the occurrences but those who surround her relate that, when possessed, she speaks in strange languages, exhibits Herculean strength and shouts threats in a voice that is not her own. We learn that the exorcism Father Amorth is to perform will be the ninth time he has conducted the rite in relation to Christina. When we finally do get to observe what Friedkin is filming it certainly is disturbing. Christina is restrained by two men as she wriggles and resists their grip, all the while shouting insults at the priest in an unfamiliar voice. Unlike the famous scenes of the ritual depicted in "The Exorcist", the real-life exorcism is performed in front of a room full of people, presumably friends and relatives of the victim. We watch as Father Amorth doggedly remains fixated on reciting the religious phrases that are supposed to expel the demons. (At one point, the "possessed" Christina identifies herself as Satan.) The Friedkin footage seems relatively brief and he doesn't provide any context as to how much footage may have been edited out of the final cut. While the episode we witness is certainly "harrowing" (as Friedkin describes it) and the affected Christina is clearly suffering from severe disorder, there is nothing in the footage that is likely to convince skeptics that they have just seen proof of a supernatural event. There are no signs of superhuman strength and the admittedly frightening voice Christina speak in could clearly be her own, since every person on earth is able to significantly alter their manner of speaking. Furthermore, there is no context provided regarding whether Christina ever sought professional psychiatric help. Friedkin asks her if she did, but her answer is vague. She simply says that doctors can't cure her, leaving it ambiguous as to whether she ever underwent a psychiatric diagnosis. This is a pivotal point that is not pursued. If she did seek medical help, it would be imperative to interview her doctors. If she did not, then her affliction is one that is self-diagnosed. Friedkin interviews prestigious doctors in America to get their views of the case, having shown them the footage. They all give the answer that people of science would be expected to give: we can't explain it without having examined the patient. They profess to keep an open mind but none will go on record as endorsing the premise that demonic possession could really be behind the victim's affliction. At the end of the film, Friedkin himself stops short of stating for certain that he believes he has witnessed a supernatural event, but the implication is that he clearly thinks he has.