“He who sups with the devil,” a wise medieval proverb has it, “needs a long spoon.” William Friedkin, forever known as the director of The Exorcist, may or may not appreciate that proverb, but in The Devil and Father Amorth, a 69-minute documentary featuring Father Gabriele Amorth — perhaps the world’s best-known exorcist until his death in 2016 — Friedkin does interview two people who clearly do.
One is Jeffrey Burton Russell, a historian noted for a five-volume history of demonology who talks about how depressing it was to “work with evil all the time.” His advice: “Don’t concentrate on the devil all the time. … Concentrate on the good, concentrate on God, concentrate on the positive, and don’t think that much about the evil side.” The other is Bishop Robert Barron, the winsome and media-savvy auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. To Friedkin’s astonishment, Bishop Barron adamantly pronounces himself unworthy of “getting in close quarters” with the devil. “People like Fr. Amorth may be able to do it,” he says cautiously. “I would never dare to do it.”
Clearly Fr. Amorth dares. Over a 30-year career, from 1986 to 2016, he performed what he claimed were hundreds of thousands of exorcisms (160,000 as of 2013), averaging up to nine exorcisms per day for years at a time — a furious rate that has elicited astonished criticism from sober Catholic commentators like canonist Edward Peters and apologist Jimmy Akin. (Full disclosure: I know both Ed and Jimmy, especially Jimmy, who is an old and close friend.)
Often wrongly billed as “the chief exorcist of the Vatican” or “the pope’s exorcist,” Fr. Amorth was never attached to the Holy See, but to the Diocese of Rome, where he was authorized to act as an exorcist but had no special title. Still, as a co-founder of the International Association of Exorcists, the author of a number of books about demons and exorcism, and a frequent public commenter in the media, he was the de facto public face of the exorcist community. In this capacity, he was known for sensational, extravagant claims, most famously condemning the Harry Potter books as satanic in origin and pronouncing not only Hitler and Stalin, but all rank-and-file Nazis, to be demon-possessed.
None of this comes up in The Devil and Fr. Amorth. In fact, other than the 20 minutes or so of handheld video footage of the exorcism of an Italian woman — her ninth exorcism, administered on Fr. Amorth’s 91st birthday, less than five months before his death — we see very little of the celebrity priest himself. Instead, after an extended introduction filmed at various locations connected with Friedkin’s more famous movie, including Georgetown’s iconic Exorcist steps, the balance of the film is largely made up of interview footage. Interview subjects include a brother and sister who credit Fr. Amorth with successfully exorcising the sister, a second woman who is the subject of the present exorcism, and a number of talking heads. Among these are Friedkin’s Exorcist collaborator, the late William Peter Blatty, who adapted his own novel for the screen, and a number of eminent medical and psychological authorities who speak cautiously about the limits of their fields and diagnoses like dissociative trance disorder.
Friedkin makes much of the novelty of his filming of an exorcism, asserting that the Vatican has never before given permission for an exorcism to be filmed. Actually, the Vatican does not directly oversee all exorcisms worldwide, and exorcisms have been filmed before. For instance, in 1991, ABC’s “20/20” filmed and broadcast the exorcism of a woman who was said to have been inhabited by as many as 10 demons, most memorably one who self-identified as “Minga.” That 1991 broadcast included moments more striking than anything in Friedkin’s footage of Cristina, administered at the Society of St. Paul congregational residence in Rome where Fr. Amorth lived and worked.
Although Fr. Amorth tells us that the devil speaks and acts through Cristina, it seems the devil has little on his mind beyond angry recalcitrance. The ritual begins with the priest, his long purple stole draped over Cristina’s shoulders, along with a large rosary around Cristina’s neck, thumbing his nose at the devil as he leads Cristina and about a dozen of her family members in the Lord’s Prayer. Among others, Fr. Amorth invokes Padre Pio and his own mentor, Fr. Candido Amantini, who also performed exorcisms for some 30 years. On the wall over Cristina’s head is a photograph of Pope Francis, who has talked more about Satan than the last two popes combined.
Presently, Cristina becomes agitated and begins rocking and writhing in her chair, obliging others to restrain her. Her outbursts — generally inarticulate snarls and cries like “No!” and “Stop!” — are uttered in a voice that sounds unmistakably like an audio-editing chorus effect. I am only a permanent deacon and a film critic, not a priest and certainly not an exorcist, but if Cristina’s voice hasn’t been digitally tweaked, for my money the devil needs a new sound design team.
Friedkin’s audio chicanery detracts from what seems to be the sincerity of the woman’s distress, whatever its origin or nature. The very humdrum nature of her outbursts supports their authenticity; a calculated or scripted performance would presumably be more dramatic. “Send the priest away! I can’t stand it!” she cries. “She belongs to me!” She refuses to answer the priest’s questions about when the possessions began and identifies herself as “Satan” and “legion” or “armies.” At one point, Fr. Amorth sternly tells the evil spirit it is damned forever and gets the reply, “It’s you who are damned!” One of the more intriguing exchanges is left untranslated. When Fr. Amorth asks her how many devils are with her, she says something that sounds like “80 million,” but on cross-examination clarifies as “80 chiefs” (Italian capi).
Sometime after the ordeal is over comes a bizarre coda in which Cristina and her boyfriend allegedly arranged to meet Friedkin in the town of Alatri’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Paul (“considered to be a sacred place,” Friedkin hilariously clarifies, in case this is unclear). Friedkin offers a complicated account for why this encounter, which winds up taking place in another church, wasn’t filmed, but the bottom line is that we have only his lurid account, scored with screeching strings and dramatized with impressionistic images and sounds, blending the earlier exorcism with glimpses of the church’s interior. Make of it what you will.
I think Maria is sincere. I think Fr. Amorth was sincere and probably gifted, though among the hazards of being immersed for decades in 24/7 spiritual combat is a tendency to see everything through that lens. When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Toward the end of The Devil and Fr. Amorth comes an anecdote that made me cringe. Fr. Amorth couldn’t wait to reach heaven, an acquaintance says with a chuckle — so that he could beat the devil with a cane. I hope the one-liner does the man a disservice.
If Cristina and Fr. Amorth seem sincere, the same cannot be said of the filmmaker. Beyond the audio effects and the suspicious unfilmed incident, Friedkin seems more interested in spinning his interview subjects’ answers than in hearing out their perspectives. For Blatty — a practicing Catholic who researched the real story behind The Exorcist for a nonfiction account, and fictionalized it only when he couldn’t get the family’s permission to write the real story — the hunt for the devil was genuinely part of a larger quest for God. Friedkin gestures toward this pious move in the closing seconds of the film, but there’s no hint of such a sentiment in the preceding 60-odd minutes. Whatever Bishop Barron or others may have said about God or Jesus, virtually nothing of this sort made it to the screen. Nor is there any perspective on behaviors that might open the door to demonic influence: involvement in occult activity, magic or divination, for instance.
In a secular age, the mystery of evil can serve for some as a useful signpost to the greater power of good. Sometimes, though, people don’t see past the sign itself, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 1975, rightly warned against “obsessional preoccupation with Satan and the demons.” There is little, if any, genuinely religious dimension to The Devil and Fr. Amorth. It’s basically a “boo” movie in documentary form — that, and an exercise in brand reinforcement and exploitation.
In an era of found-footage horror movies, genre fans may get a kick from the suggestion that there could be something to this “woo-woo” after all. Pious viewers may be gratified by the film’s validation of their worldview and the reverential treatment of a conservative fire-and-brimstone clergyman. Skeptics will find confirmation of their disbelief in the film’s evident jiggery-pokery. Few, perhaps, will find much to challenge the preconceptions they sat down with.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.