Who doesn’t love a good movie exorcism? Demonic possession offers titillation with a whiff of the ridiculous, perfect for dramatic representation in horror films and novels. So when Federica Di Giacomo turns the cameras on exorcisms in Palermo, it feels pathetic in its tawdriness. Then you think about the deeply disturbed people whose psyches are being corrupted by sham artists, and the pathos turns to anger. By the end of “Libera Nos” (Latin for “deliver us”), that anger turns to fury as Di Giacomo erases any misconception that the Vatican might censure these exorcising Sicilian priests once they get a load of the nonsense they’re peddling. Far from it: The Church is churning out exorcists as fast as it can. The documentary’s chilling coda is what really gives “Libera Nos” its power, and Venice’s top prize in the Horizons section guarantees international festival audiences will get a glimpse of this outrageous embrace of ignorance.
This isn’t a film with talking heads (nor spinning ones), though some of those involved do informally speak to the camera. Visually, the style is flexible, well-composed when possible but often most preoccupied with getting close enough to the action, and if that means bringing the camera down to the floor as a woman writhes about, so be it. There is a repetitiveness to certain scenes, and some audiences will likely find elements exploitative, though the real exploitation comes from the priests, with their mumbo-jumbo about possession when what their duped parishioners really need is therapy and meds.
Franciscan Father Cataldo Migliazzo is the chief culprit of the film, although Di Giacomo is careful not to vilify him directly. As one of Sicily’s most famous exorcists, his ministrations are sought from all over by people claiming demons have taken up residence in their souls. Supplicants are all ages, and appear to be from the middle as well as lower classes. Father Cataldo and fellow exorcist Father Carmine splash them with holy water, cover their heads with priestly stoles, and lay hands on them in ceremonies that take more from Pentecostal denominations than from the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes though, when Father Cataldo can’t actually get to his flock, he’ll perform a mini-exorcism via mobile phone, adding a, “Happy Christmas, and best wishes to your husband,” at the end that makes the ridiculousness of it all tip into outright absurdity.
The problem here is that the people calling on these priests aren’t Linda Blairs playing at being Regan; they’re individuals suffering from schizophrenia, depression, and a host of personality disorders, and they’re not going to get better by being told the reason they’re possessed is because their parents don’t have strong enough faith. No one Di Giacomo films gets better, though some claim to temporarily be rid of demons after the priests’ ministrations. The whole concept feels so medieval that it’s possible to lull yourself into thinking these things only happen on the fringes of the Church, but no: A final scene at an exorcists conference in the Vatican itself shows that the practice is growing steadily under official sanction, and exorcisms are as available in Yonkers as they are in small Sicilian dioceses.
This is an uncomfortable film to watch, knowing that these troubled souls are being steered away from mental health professionals and into the hands of witch doctors who happen to be ordained priests. Di Giacomo largely sticks to a limited cast of characters, from a blonde woman who tries not to be out of her house for too long for fear her demon will make her do things in public, to a tattooed and pierced drug addict desperately in need of psychiatric rehab. Surely a few are performing ever so slightly for the camera – claiming to be possessed is one thing, claiming to be possessed and agreeing to be filmed is another – yet the frequency with which the director returns to these individuals does make this alternate reality feel almost matter-of-fact. The documentary wisely avoids questioning beliefs, but it does force audiences to question how those responsible for shepherding the faithful use their influence, for good or bad. And while Di Giacomo maintains a veneer of neutrality, clearly Father Cataldo should be brought up on charges for endangering those seeking his assistance.