Netflix UK film review: The Devil and Father Amorth
James R | On 29, Apr 2018
Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Gabriele Amorth, Robert Barron, William Friedkin
Watch The Devil and Father Amorth online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Amazon Instant Video
“People ought to stay away from the subject of exorcism as much as possible,” Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of The Prince of Darkness, warns at the start of The Devil and Father Amorth. It’s a caution that perhaps falls on flat ears, given that he’s talking to William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist. But over 40 years after one of the scariest films of all time enshrined the Catholic ritual in the public eye, the filmmaker returns to familiar territory for an intriguing documentary.
That’s literally the case, at first, as we join Friedkin for a walking tour of locations from his horror classic – including the now infamous “Exorcist Steps”. That doesn’t quite sit alongside the rest of the movie, but it gives the project a significant dose of factual weight (as does a co-writing credit with trusted, bequiffed film critic Mark Kermode), which offsets suspicions that the whole thing is a hoax. The thing in question is a real life exorcism, with Friedkin given permission by Reverend Gabriele Amorth to record him performing the ceremony on an Italian woman named Cristina.
We all think we know what to expect from the procedure, thanks to Friedkin’s own depiction of it back in the 1970s. But this is a decidedly low-key affair: Christ-compelling, pea soup-spewing, head-turning antics are in short supply. Instead, we see Cristina sitting calmly in a chair, as Father Amorth takes her hand and prays intensely. She responds by writhing slightly, occasionally crying out in a deep voice – not in a string of poetically profane insults, but rather a couple of brief, repeated protests. Even the showdown itself between The Devil and the priest takes place in a brightly lit office in the daytime, surrounded by family and friends. No, the furniture doesn’t shake. And nobody flies out of the window.
If that sounds underwhelming, the more disappointing sequence arrives later, when Friedkin goes to see Cristina in a remote church outside of Rome – a confrontation that wasn’t recorded, and so is left to be recounted by Friedkin with lots of dramatic music, blue tints and rapidly edited close-ups of statues, chairs and fonts. But that knowingly cheesy attempt to dress up reality as something more dramatic reinforces the creepiness that lingers in the tiny details of the more mundane truth.
Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty, we discover, had never seen an exorcism when they made The Exorcist. Amorth names it as his favourite film – a ringing endorsement from someone who purportedly conducted hundreds of thousands of them before he passed away shortly after this was made. He notes, however, that the effects were a bit over-the-top. Indeed, when we see Cristina speaking in a deeper voice, in a manner not unlike The Exorcist, our immediate suspicion is that Friedkin has had some fun in post-production to make her voice sound more sinister.
But a more haunting note lies in the fact that this is Cristina’s ninth exorcism, which highlights the way that spiritual possession is deeply embedded within some channels of Italian, Catholic culture. Whether Cristina is consciously imitating Linda Blair’s Regan – or, more accurately, Mercedes McCambridge, who voiced the demon possessing her – The Exorcist’s enduring legacy has created an unavoidable feedback loop, one that has come to define what an exorcism is, regardless of fact, faith or doctrine.
In a similar way, the perpetuating idea of possession feeds quietly upon itself. Reverend Robert Barron comments in the film’s most striking interview that he would never perform an exorcism, because he doesn’t consider himself holy enough. Juxtaposed with scientific experts who prefer to point to brain tumours or other explanations, the suggestion is that those who believe in the Devil possessing people are the ones who encounter or experience it, just as those who believe in exorcism find help in the ritual.
Questioning whether the documentary is real or not, then, taps directly into that same vein of existential fear. Decades after he waded into those waters, Friedkin’s return, perhaps, could be considered an act of atonement for not having witnessed an exorcism in 1973. But even at a slight 70 minutes that leaves you yearning for more details, the documentary’s proof that he can’t stay away from the subject tells its own chilling tale.
The Devil and Father Amorth is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.