In “The Devil and Father Amorth,” director William Friedkin, still hale and hearty and hectoring at the age of 81, returns to the subject of his most legendary film, “The Exorcist.” The new movie is a documentary built around a video, recorded by Friedkin in 2016, of what purports to be an actual exorcism. If you think that sounds like material that’s ripe for a musty old episode of “Unsolved Mysteries,” you’d be right. But if you claim that you aren’t just a wee bit curious as to whether you’re going to get to witness something…demonic, you’re probably lying. “The Devil and Father Amorth” is Friedkin’s shot-on-the-cheap, reality-based version of a “Mondo Cane” stunt, yet for 68 minutes (it’s that short), it is often an oddly compelling tabloid foray, since it winds up shedding a crucial ray of light on the mad moment we’re in now. Whether or not you believe in the Devil, the film helps to color in how our culture got possessed.
Most of the movie takes place in Italy, where Friedkin walks around talking directly into the camera, in what sounds like scripted “off-the-cuff” narration (though it’s possible he improvised it). To call him blunt would be an understatement; there’s a distinctly Trumpian bombast to his in-your-face oratory — he sounds like an ambulance-chasing lawyer on a late-night commercial. He’s working hard to sell us something, though there’s no denying that he’s an arresting carny barker.
Friedkin serves up a shocking statistic: that 500,000 Italians, out of a population of 60 million, have undergone exorcisms. For them, it’s like Californians getting high colonics — either that, or the Devil is alive and working overtime in Italy. The director also returns to Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., where he shot “The Exorcist” 45 years ago, and speaks to us from the famous concrete stairway where Father Karras met his death, as if something genuine had happened there. That’s a standard shlock-TV-news ploy, but in this case it has a resonance. The real theme of “The Devil and Father Amorth” is the degree to which people now believe that exorcism is real.
The belief didn’t begin yesterday. Friedkin sketches in how William Peter Blatty came to write his smash-hit novel “The Exorcist,” spinning it out of a 1949 case of demonic possession that he became obsessed with when he was a student at Georgetown. In hindsight, that case, along with the alien incident at Roswell in 1948 and the 1974 Amityville haunting, constitute a kind of popular triptych of the otherworldly: a testament to how the spirit of the uncanny got recast — re-mythologized — for a secular age. “Rosemary’s Baby,” in 1968, famously pictured the Time magazine cover that asked “Is God Dead?” This trilogy of incidents — and, beyond all of them, the film version of “The Exorcist” — answered that question by saying: “Yes, He is. But He’s now going to be reborn as occult tabloid sensationalism, with a patina of Old Time Religion.”
A lot of movie buffs, especially if they saw “The Exorcist” at a certain age, will tell you that they think it’s the scariest movie ever made. I wouldn’t call it that (“Psycho,” in its day, was scarier), but “The Exorcist” is the movie that terrified people into believing. It made the Devil “real.” It has often been noted that the film proved to be an extraordinary recruitment tool for the Catholic Church (exorcism became a part of the Church’s brand), though the “presence” of the Devil on our ’70s multiplex screens didn’t hurt the rise of the Evangelical movement, either. “The Exorcist” was a cinematic earthquake that has never stopped giving off tremors.
“The Devil and Father Amorth” shows you how deep the mystique of the demonic goes. Friedkin introduces us to Gabriele Amorth, an Italian Roman Catholic priest who’s also an exorcist of the Diocese of Rome — essentially, the Vatican’s chief ghostbuster. Ninety-one when the film was shot (he died in September 2016), Father Amorth is an ancient bald elfin tribal ringmaster who understands that religion, like politics, can always use a dash of showbiz. His favorite movie is “The Exorcist” (though he thinks the special effects were a bit overdone), and if he seems more casual about his work than Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin did, maybe that’s because he’s performed hundreds of exorcisms and lived to tell the tale.
The woman he’s going to be exorcising is no stranger to the Devil. Her name is Cristina, she works in an architecture firm in a small town 200 kilometers from Rome, and this will be her ninth exorcism. Friedkin interviews her, and she’s a polite, self-aware, rather neurasthenic woman in her mid-thirties, officious in manner, with a slight aura of damage. Then, having agreed to the stipulation that he’ll bring no crew with him at all (no lighting or sound assistants — just himself and his small camcorder), Friedkin enters a rather humdrum-looking conference room to film the exorcism. Cristina is surrounded by 20 or so of her relatives, and we can see that this is, for them, a therapeutic ritual that they accept and believe in. It’s the spirit version of an intervention, only with screams and a dash of holy water.
What do we see? Cristina sits in a chair, as Father Amorth talks gently to her, places his hand on her head, strokes her knees, and listens as she — or could it be…Satan? — screams at him. Cristina certainly seems like she’s channeling another personality, one that’s fierce, raging, merciless, insane. Yet this doesn’t necessarily strike us as all that exotic; it could be footage from an old est seminar. A lot of us would probably agree with the team of Columbia University psychiatrists Friedkin interviews, who say that Cristina journeys to a place deep inside her, but not necessarily a demonic one. The most striking aspect of what goes on has to do with her voice, which hits a low register rather strikingly like that of Linda Blair’s Regan in “The Exorcist.” In fact, the voice sounds as if it’s been manipulated. By Friedkin? He’s not telling, but in a movie like this one the devil is in the details.
Watching the exorcism in “The Devil and Father Amorth,” what we see is that Italians, in the DNA of their consciousness, still carry around the seeds of a medieval culture. The Devil, and exorcism, is part of the psyche of this passionately Catholic country. But we also see something that Friedkin, with supreme irony, never acknowledges: the profound influence of his own movie. Whether or not Cristina’s deep dark Devil voice was tweaked in post-production, it seems more than likely that she is, in fact, imitating the sound and spirit of the Devil when he spoke through Regan MacNeil in “The Exorcist.” The movie has fed, like a loop, into religion, which is now feeding into the chaos of a world that, increasingly, needs the Devil to explain why everything appears to be spinning out of control. “The Devil and Father Amorth” is a rather tawdry charade. But it channels that force.