April 16, 2018 The Devil and Father Amorth (Documentary Review)
Director William Friedkin is best-known for his groundbreaking, 1973 Horror classic The Exorcist. At the time of its creation, he had never witnessed a real-life exorcism. Now, more than forty years later, taking a cue from his own work, Friedkin brings us The Devil and Father Amorth, an insightful new Documentary which arrives to theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, April 20, 2018, thanks to The Orchard.
In The Devil and Father Amorth, Friedkin explores demonic possession and real-life exorcism, focusing his lens on one particular man, Father Gabriele Amorth, the Chief Exorcist for the Diocese of Rome. This, my friends, is no fictitious exploit into the Catholic Church, no: this is the real deal. The central story here revolves around a woman, “Cristina,” an architect who lives in a small but beautiful mountain-top village in Italy. Suffering from a “spiritual sickness,” Cristina has been exorcised eight times now by Father Amorth but continues to suffer under what is believed to be a demonic possession.
In a chance encounter between Friedkin and Father Amorth in Rome in April 2016, Friedkin is granted permission to attend and film Cristina’s ninth exorcism on May 1, 2016. The catch? He may only bring one, small handheld camera; no crew, no lighting, nothing but himself and a handheld. Considering the Vatican has never previously given permission for one of these rituals to be filmed, Friedkin understandably jumps at the opportunity and this documentary is thus born.
The Devil and Father Amorth intelligently provides, first, some backstory on Father Amorth himself, a man who fought against Fascism under the Mussolini regime, and then went on to become an ordained priest a decade later, at the age of 28. Thirty years after this, Father Amorth would be given the position of Chief Exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, and his work against the devil would be taken to new heights. A dedicated man, a loving and tender spirit, 91-year-old Father Amorth injects a bit of humor into all of his work, even taking a second out of each exorcism to playfully thumb his nose at the devil. (Sadly, we will learn that Father Amorth passed on to his ultimate destiny in the summer of 2016.)
Father Amorth is understandably beloved by the Catholics of Italy (and beyond), where there are roughly 500,000 incidents of exorcism per year for a population of over 60-million. Which, if you do the math, is thankfully less than 1% of that population, despite the numbers sounding astounding. One woman who was exorcised by Father Amorth, Nadia, gives testimonial about her situation, with her story being corroborated by her brother, Paolo Vizzacchero. You can think what you will about any of the testimonials contained herein, but Vizzacchero has a truly haunted look behind his eyes that seems to suggest that he has personally gazed upon the face of evil.
When the Documentary moves into the meat of its bones, Cristina’s exorcism is depicted in a no-frills manner. She sits in a red-clothed chair amid a congregation of her family and some of Amorth’s fellow priests, wearing a rosary around her neck, clutching a crucifix in her right hand, and with Father Amorth’s purple vestments wrapped loosely around her shoulders. The good father leads the assembled in an opening prayer, and then they move immediately into the exorcism ritual. By Hollywood standards, this is actually rather boring, with Cristina breathing heavily, slipping into a kind of trance-like state, and uttering angered epithets in the third person in voice that sounds electronically-altered to sound like every Horror cliché available. Think what you will!
Post-exorcism, Friedkin takes his video footage and sits down with several experts in the fields of neurosurgery and psychiatry. This portion of the Documentary contains commentary from the prestigious likes of Neil Martin, MD, Head of Neurosurgery at UCLA Medical Center and a man who has performed over 5,000 brain surgeries over the years; Itzhak Fried, MD, Professor of Neurosurgery at Tel Aviv Medical Center in Israel; John Mazziota, MD, Vice Chancellor at UCLA Medical Center; Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD, Chairman of Psychiatry at Columbia University; Michael B. First, MD, Clinical Psychiatrist and an editor of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV); Ryan E. Lawrence, MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University; and Roberto Lewis-Fernández, MD, President of the World Association of Cultural Psychiatry. Here, Friedkin asks perhaps the most important question of this entire production: can all of Cristina’s behavior be explained by a psychiatric and/or neurological condition or is demonic possession a viable diagnosis. The experts offer up a multitude of opinions and some intriguing input that opens the field wide for further discussion.
Despite the intelligent and thought-provoking commentary from the medical professionals, Friedkin’s interview with Robert Barron, the Archbishop of Los Angeles, is a clear stand-out. Barron notes, intelligently, that “the natural has to be eliminated before we get to the Supernatural.” He goes on to offer up some truly insightful, open and candid observations about exorcisms, mental health, the church, and his own refusal to toy with the devil.
Of course, let it be known that there is also an homage to The Exorcist here, with Friedkin narrating a trip around Georgetown University – the location of the movie’s filming and also where author William Peter Blatty initially found his inspiration for his book – along with the suburban Maryland home where the case study utilized in Blatty’s book lived. Appropriately, footage of interviews with Blatty – to whom the documentary’s memory is dedicated – in 1998 and 2010 appear here, as well.
Clocking in at just 68 minutes in-length, The Devil and Father Amorth is an exceedingly well-done Documentary that gives fair-play to all concepts behind demonic possession, be they birthed from Christian belief or medical science. There is a respect provided to all depicted herein that gives this Documentary its power: the cynical questioning or disbelief – or conversely, the blind faith – are left in the hands of the viewer. With intriguing, intense content and Friedkin’s excellent narration and interview skills, The Devil and Father Amorth might be entirely inspired by Friedkin’s successes with The Exorcist, but it puts aside all preconceived notions to explore the fact and the fiction behind one of Catholicism’s most intriguing and misunderstood rituals. For these reasons, CrypticRock give The Devil and Father Amorth 4.5 of 5 stars.