Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) is quite frankly one of the greatest films ever made. Period. No qualifiers are necessary. However, before we go any further it needs to be distinctly understood that the film originally carried an X rating—and it had to be cut to receive that. The X-rated version that appeared in the U.S. was two minutes short of the U.K. release print. Even the U.K. version was cut—an entire sequence referred to as “The Rape of Christ” was removed and never shown. In fact, this footage was thought lost until a few years ago. It is the British print with the “Rape” sequence restored that is to be shown on Friday at Courtyard Gallery.
In any version, the film has drawn heat. It has been denounced as pornographic and been outright banned in many places (I wrote the program notes for a screening of it at a film festival in Finland where they showed the film in defiance of the ban). The Devils quickly became one of the most notorious films ever made—and has been a thorn in the side of Warner Bros. since its original release. Despite petitions and its invariable status as one of the top titles in need of a DVD release, they have refused to budge on a director’s cut or indeed any cut at all. (In fact, they seemed quite pleased a few years ago when they announced that their archival print was worn-out and the film could no longer be booked for film festivals.) So what’s the truth? Is the film pornographic? I’d say not in the least, but I would say that it is shocking, though not for its own sake. I would also say that it is very strong stuff—some of it is very ugly stuff—and it is not for the easily offended. It is not even for the moderately easily offended.
To understand what Russell was up to with The Devils, it’s necessary to understand the era in which it was made. The actual events involving an outspokenly libidinous and political priest, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), being accused of witchcraft by a sexually frustrated nun, Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave), took place in France in 1634; but Russell’s film is a product of 1971. In part, it’s the filmmaker’s reaction to our own desensitized society. It was made as deliberately shocking as possible to jolt viewers who had been numbed by nightly TV-news footage of the Vietnam War into a state of awareness. Moreover, Russell attacked the project from an angle no one had ever really tried with a period drama—he made it modern. Oh, it’s still set in the village of Loudon in 1634, but it’s a wholly created Loudon (the amazing production design is by filmmaker Derek Jarman), peopled with characters who think and act as modern people, speaking in modern language. To top it all off, Russell chose avant-garde composer Peter Maxwell Davies (who Russell once called “the mad king of modern music”) to do the score. The results were—and are—electrifying. There’s no sense of the usual period-film safe distancing here, no feeling of looking at the backwards antics of quaint folk from nearly 400 years ago. It’s all in your face and immediate. It’s happening now—and that gives the film its power, which is the very reason it upsets people.
It’s a blistering, raw attack on governmental misuse and perversion of religion to achieve its own end. While it presents strikingly irreligious imagery, the film itself is not irreligious in the least. Indeed, at the height of perverted insanity of the mass exorcisms, Grandier walks into the midst of it all and says, “You have turned the house of the Lord into a circus, and its servants into clowns. You have perverted the innocent.” It is this that the film attacks, not the Church itself. Bear this in mind if you choose to tackle this remarkable—and for some, remarkably difficult—film. And also bear in mind that the film contains rampant nudity, torture, unbridled hysteria and religious images that many may find offensive. One will also find one of the very small handful of films to which the word “genius” might reasonably be applied.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke