To look at Cristina, a 46-year-old Italian woman with brunette hair, dark eyes, and a pleasant smile, one would never guess that she is ensnared in the cruel grip of a diabolical spirit.
But in William Friedkin’s final film, a documentary called “Father Amorth and the Devil,” Cristina’s soul hangs in the balance of what Friedkin promises to be a true clash between good and evil, as Amorth squares off against the demon inside her in the first ever Vatican-approved filming of an exorcism.
Promising as the concept of an in-depth exploration of exorcism is, the documentary doesn’t quite deliver. What Friedkin gives the audience instead is an exorcism scene that could have, and probably should have, lasted for all of 15 to 20 minutes, but is inflated on either side by a poorly shot, sloppily edited blend of self promotion, conjecture, and questions raised without thorough attempts to answer them.
Freidkin opens the documentary with introductions to Cristina, who lives in a remote mountain village, and Father Amorth, who at the time of filming was the Vatican’s chief exorcist. Amorth had performed eight exorcisms on Cristina, all without ultimate success, and allowed Friedkin to film the ninth. We jump swiftly from the documentary’s focus to a 10 minute rehash of Friedkin’s work on the 1973 movie “The Exorcist,” complete with excerpts of interviews with William Peter Blatty, author of the novel that served as the basis for that movie, and shots of Georgetown University’s campus.
I couldn’t help but feel immediately bored. I had been promised a glimpse of a real exorcism, instead I was watching a summarized “making of” feature about a film so well-known that people who have never seen it can explain the plot. At best it was unnecessary and added nothing new to the conversation about the existence of the demonic. At worst, it was self promotion by Friedkin that shifted the focus of the film from a titillating subject to himself.
When it jumped to the exorcism scene, preceded by a brief explanation of the symptoms and episodes that led Cristina and her friends to seek the help of Father Amorth, Friedkin does an unwitting disservice to the Catholic Church. He claims that Cristina and Amorth believe that she is possessed by none other than the Devil. That eyebrow-raising statement alone deserves a lot of unpacking that, in the documentary, never happens, leading casual viewers to believe that the Vatican’s chief exorcist believes an obscure woman from a remote village is possessed by Satan.
In Catholic parlance, an exorcism is an attempt to remove a person or thing from the influence of the Devil. Here’s where the terminology becomes more specific — there’s the Devil, and then there are devils.
The Devil is Satan, or Lucifer, the archangel who rebelled against God in pride and was cast out of heaven along with a third of the angels, who had followed him in the rebellion. Lucifer became the Devil, and the angels who followed him became demons. Catholics believe that there is a hierarchy among demons, much as there is among angels. Low level demons are simply referred to as demons, while those with more power are referred to as devils.
The documentary explains none of that.
Amorth actually purports that Cristina is possessed by a devil, not the Devil, and explains in Italian that a devil is a demonic, or impure spirit. The subtitles do not bear this out and already, before the documentary explores the main questions surrounding Cristina’s affliction, its focus is fraught with inaccuracies.
Friedkin also gives little mention to the process by which the Catholic Church approves an exorcism, except for the fact that Amorth requested to see Cristina’s medical records to rule out the possibility of a psychological malady. In reality, only a bishop may grant permission for a priest to perform an exorcism and will only do so after the person in question has undergone a battery of medical and psychological tests to prove that the malady is in fact fully spiritual.
Friedkin’s “The Exorcist “does a better job of explaining that than this non-fiction documentary. In fact, The Exorcist in many ways provides more insight into exorcism than the documentary.
As for the exorcism, its portrayal on film begs questions that do more to cast doubt than to invite the audience to believe. Cristina is clearly suffering, and the source of the suffering does seem to be demonic. But the voice that comes out of her while she growls and jerks and rocks back and forth sounds edited. The demonic voice is free of any background noise and blocks out the voices of others in the room, and it sounds strangely similar to the amplified and edited voice that comes out of Cate Blanchett’s character in The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring during her brief transfiguration scene. In other words, compared to the rest of the film’s sound quality, it sounds very clean, and very Hollywood.
Friedkin saying that the voice was left as recorded would have lent the documentary a stronger air of veracity, but sadly he never addresses it.
He does, however, show footage of the exorcism to a series of neurologists, psychiatrists, and other medical professionals, and questions them concerning the medical view of exorcism and demonic possession.
These medical professionals offer interesting insights into the phenomenon of possession, like the distinct activity in the temporal lobe of the brains of people who suffer from possession, the fact that every world culture believes in possession in one form or another, and the admission that simply because a phenomenon cannot be explained rationally does not mean it isn’t real.
The interviews set up a false dichotomy, however, between scientific and spiritual worldviews. One neurologist points out that only religious people seem to suffer from possession, arguing that their framework of beliefs shapes the way their malady manifests and that therefore their sickness is primarily behavioral. Later, a team of psychiatrists denounce the possibility of spiritual maladies out of hand and diagnose Cristina with Dissociative Trance Disorder, despite never having met her. If Cristina and Amorth are guilty of confirmation bias, as the neurologist suggested, then so are the psychiatrists who refuse to conceive of a spiritual reality and package Cristina’s affliction in a comfortably rational diagnosis.
The film might have benefited from an esteemed medical professional who adheres to a spiritual worldview, or at least allows for a spiritual possibility. Alas, the documentary retreads the tired science vs. the Catholic Church narrative which, again, adds nothing new to the conversations about whether the supernatural exists.
As for how the film is shot, overly ominous zooms, repeated close-ups, camcorder film quality, and frantic, staccato string music accompanying such mundane scenes as a man walking down the street and people standing around a fountain should give you an idea of how badly its shot. What is clearly meant to unnerve the audience, instead invites mockery.
Overall, the documentary squandered a major opportunity. With interest growing worldwide on the subject of exorcism, this film could have provided new insight for the casual viewer into the actual beliefs and practices of the church concerning spiritual warfare. Instead, the movie tries too hard to do the demon’s job for it – namely, to scare the audience – and fails.
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