Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Movie Review: The Devil & Father Amorth

The Devil & Father Amorth ** / *****
Directed by: William Friedkin.
Written by: William Friedkin & Mark Kermode 
The great William Friedkin is now in his early 80s, and hasn’t made a feature film since 2011’s Killer Joe – but I wouldn’t count out another great film from him before his time is up. He is, after all, a director who many have written off several times, only to rise again with another gem of a film. The Devil & Father Amorth though is not that film. It is a small and slight film – it runs barely over an hour, and feels padded at that. Friedkin is still enough of a showman that he wants to give the audience their monies worth, and yet the film kind of feels like a couple half-baked ideas crammed together when neither was enough on their own.
The film is a documentary about Father Gabriel Amorth – a Catholic Priest in Rome, who died a few years ago at the age of 93. For decades, he was the Church’s chief Exorcist in Italy – apparently performing thousands of exorcisms himself, which sounds like a lot until you realize two things – apparently 50,000 people a year in Italy seek out exorcists, and priests often have to perform one exorcism after another after another on the same people. The big hook that Friedkin tries very hard to sell the audience on in this film that for the first time, Father Amorth will let him film an actual exorcism.
Before we get there though, Friedkin spends some time with his own history of exorcisms – visiting the locations of his infamous 1973 classic The Exorcist, shows interview clips with the late William Peter Blatty talking about the real life case that inspired the novel, etc. We then meet Father Amorth – who Friedkin says is the “most spiritual man he ever knew” – yet that doesn’t come across very well in the film - he’s very quiet, and we don’t get much of a sense of anything about him. We actually learn more from his assistant than we do from Father Amorth himself.
Anyway, eventually we get to the main attraction – the ninth exorcism of an Italian woman named Cristina. Friedkin makes a big deal about Father Amorth would only let Friedkin himself – no crew, no lights – into record the exorcism, but that’s an odd request considering that the room is full of at least a dozen of Cristina’s friends and families there to help – including several (male) family members who hold her down at Father Amorth recites his prayers. Cristina certainly does appear to have something deeply wrong with her – whether it’s demonic possession or mental illness, who can say for sure? Friedkin interviews some medical experts after the exorcism to get their take, and they seem extremely careful not to completely dismiss the idea of demons – but they don’t embrace it either. Their explanation runs something like this – even if we cannot explain it now, doesn’t mean there isn’t a scientific explanation for it – we just haven’t discovered what it is.
The exorcism in the film is strangely anti-climactic. I didn’t really expect something out of Friedkin’s other Exorcist film – I didn’t expect to see levitating, head spinning, vomiting or masturbating with crucifixes, but there really isn’t anything too dramatic here (perhaps this is why Friedkin padded the movie to even get it to its 69 minute runtime – the footage itself isn’t that great). I do wish Friedkin had addressed the sounds she was making during the exorcism – they sound, quite frankly, fake – not in that she is putting on a performance, but more like the sound that talented sound department people come up with.
The biggest single flaw in the movie though comes at the end. Up until then, I think Friedkin had mainly played fair – and was willing to question the validity of these things. For example, he knows that growing up in a culture like Italy – where demonic possession is something many believe in, means you’re much more likely to be diagnosed with that than if you were in, say, America. But in the final moments of the film, Friedkin expects the audience to believe that he and his producer drove two hours, to a small town in Italy, to meet once again with Cristina – who isn’t in the field Friedkin thought they were supposed to meet in, but rather, inside the church. When they go inside the church, Friedkin says they see things he cannot explain – and Cristina threatens his life while possessed. Why is Friedkin telling us this, instead of showing us? Because he wants us to believe he forgot to bring his camera into the church.
I mean, come on – Friedkin’s putting us on here right? I don’t know how much of the film is a put on, and how much Friedkin really believes, but this last twist is too much for me to believe almost anything in the film. As a documentary, then, the film fails. And as entertainment, it fails as well- it just isn’t all that interesting. Nice try though Friedkin.

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