While the Asheville Film Society has always been a vehicle for bringing repertory programming to local theaters, something special has come along that prompted the curator (me) to schedule a film’s local premiere. That something is a new picture from director William Friedkin, returning to the subject matter that effectively cemented his status as one of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers with his exorcism documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth. Friedkin’s brief — but never slight — foray into non-narrative cinema provides the only example of a Vatican-sanctioned exorcist consenting to be filmed while battling a case of demonic possession. If that premise sounds salacious, well, that’s because it is. Of course, I had to show it.
While Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist resulted in one of the greatest horror films ever made, The Devil and Father Amorth is unlikely to similarly change the documentary landscape. But it does provide a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain of a mysterious rite that has long remained a carefully guarded secret, the details of which were known only to those inside the Catholic Church. As Friedkin — doing double duty as both director and narrator/presenter — points out, exorcism is on the rise, with 500,000 Italians having undergone the ritual. The principal purveyor of these spiritual treatments is Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s exorcist-in-chief, who allowed Friedkin to film the ninth exorcism of a young architect named Christina under the provision that he bring no crew and minimal equipment.
Shot on a diminutive Sony A 7sII mirrorless camera, Friedkin’s fly-on-the-wall perspective and occasionally heavy-handed narration (co-written by critic Mark Kermode) lend the doc a subtle sense of exploitation cinema, which suits the subject matter surprisingly well. Christina’s exorcism is harrowing, with her family gathered for support as several men hold her down during Father Amorth’s ministrations. Her voice taking on a timbre eerily similar to that of Mercedes McCambridge’s performance as the demonic presence in The Exorcist, there is clearly something deeply wrong with Christina. What exactly that something is depends entirely on your perspective regarding supernatural possession, and even the talking head interviews Friedkin provides from neurologists and psychologists seem to support the conclusion that nobody really knows definitively what underlies this phenomenon.
Despite Friedkin’s on-camera presence, the real star of the show here is Father Amorth — a spry 91 at the time of filming and having died shortly thereafter — a likable and compelling character who bears little resemblance to Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin beyond his occupation. Amorth seems almost playful, literally thumbing his nose at the devil as he undertakes the strenuous ritual and speaking of treating spiritual disease with the world-weary confidence of a battle-hardened veteran. If Satan is real and truly possesses people, we’ve been lucky to have Father Amorth on our side all these years.
Like the fictional Father Merrin, Father Amorth died before he could complete Christina’s exorcism, and Friedkin’s account of his final encounter with her is chilling. There’s clearly an agenda at play on the director’s part, and exactly how factual his documentary actually is will undoubtedly be a subject for debate. But regardless of your position on the matter, no one will leave the theater with any doubt that there are powerful forces of some sort at play. Friedkin had never witnessed an actual exorcism before making his seminal film on the topic, but now everyone has the opportunity to do so — for one night only, April 24 at Grail Moviehouse — and while Friedkin’s documentary may not resolve your questions on the existence of God or the devil, it will give you something very unsettling to think about. Not Rated.
One screening only, Tuesday, April 24, at 7 p.m. at Grail Moviehouse. Followed by supplementary interview footage with William Friedkin.