The Devil and Father Amorth succeeds as a glimpse into the alchemy behind The Exorcist, but unfortunately it falters in the area that counts most: the exorcism.
Certain films seem to exist in another dimension; these are movies that can’t be replicated, and everyone who has ever seen them remembers exactly where and when they saw it for the first time. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is such a film, and it remains the pinnacle of its genre nearly 45 years after its release. Horror films, more than almost any other genre, must by necessity be aware of their forbears. Scaring people often relies on surprising them, and it is impossible to do so if the audience has seen it all before. Yet somehowThe Exorcist nailed Satanic horror in a way that no film had before or since. Herein lies the value of Friedkin’s flimsy new documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth. Though the film’s production values are lacking and any proof offered of real-life demonic possession is decidedly flimsy, Friedkin’s camera captures some of what caught his interest all of the years ago when he made his landmark film.
The Father is the late Gabriele Amorth, often billed as “The Vatican’s Official Exorcist.” He served as an official exorcist for the Diocese of Rome for over 30 years and claimed to have performed thousands of exorcisms. Before his death, Father Amorth invited Friedkin to observe an exorcism. The priest has been frank about the fact that he sees a lot of fakers and people suffering from conditions other than demonic possession, but the exorcism he invited Friedkin to was unique: it was ninth exorcism performed on a woman referred to by the pseudonym Christina.
Christina’s long-standing relationship with Father Amorth puts her at ease, which of course allows for a better film, as she appears to be free to discuss her long, fraught struggle with possession. Regardless of one’s spiritual belief, it’s clear that this woman has suffered from something for quite some time. Friedkin, just as in The Exorcist, observes Christina’s loved ones, as well as medical professionals and junior priests, all of whom state that something is wrong with Christina.
Father Amorth is an odd central figure, as he appears to really believe in what he is doing but is also a professed fan of The Exorcist. As a result, it is hard to tell how much of his process is a result of his training and how much is a result of knowing that a camera is on him. And not just any camera: Friedkin’s camera.
Friedkin himself features quite prominently in the documentary, and he’s obviously at ease in front of the camera. There is a sturdiness and conviction to his presence, his demeanor recalling Robert Stack’s hosting duties on TV’s “Unsolved Mysteries.” He’s spry and serious at 82 years old, and his cinematic brain is as sharp as ever. The tidbits that he does reveal about The Exorcist make it apparent that the success of the film was a mixture of magic and material. William Peter Blatty, the author of the original novel and the man who adapted it for the screen, makes a welcome appearance, especially touching in the wake of his death last year.
The Devil and Father Amorth succeeds as a glimpse into the alchemy behind The Exorcist, but unfortunately it falters in the area that counts most: the exorcism. The procedure is decidedly boring despite semi-demonic sound effects. The poor camera quality is supposedly because Father Amorth would only allow a handheld camera in the room, but that seems odd. Wouldn’t he want the process captured as clearly as possible? The exorcism doesn’t seem staged so much as it does dull.
The movie reveals that Friedkin’s interest in the spiritual and the demonic is still alive and well. The twinkle in his eye and excitement in his voice as he introduces the people and places involved in both Christina’s exorcism and its long-ago cinematic cousin are palpable. And while his fascination is infectious, it would have been better used in the making of another demonic narrative feature instead of this lightweight documentary.