William Friedkin’s The Devil and Father Amorth has an irresistible hook, in which the director of The Exorcist talks his way into filming a live exorcism near Rome, further blurring the already tenuous line between pop mythology and reality. Aware of the meta implications of this premise, Friedkin properly begins The Devil and Father Amorth with an elaborate act of throat-clearing by standing on the stairway in Georgetown where Father Karras fell to his death at the end of the 1973 film. Friedkin appears to regard this stairway as the site of an authentic spiritual occurrence, earnestly rhyming it with a church in Rome where real exorcisms have been performed. Such an act of hubris should be laughable, except that Friedkin is on to something: An exorcism that occurred in a famous film is more “real” for most audiences than an actual exorcism, as our notions of reality are often derived from fiction anyway. Friedkin has found a way to update The Exorcist for our contemporary reality crisis, in which “truth” is defined by whatever source has the greatest visibility.
Though Friedkin has taken to following the lead of screenwriter William Peter Blatty in positioning The Exorcist as a soul-affirming testament to faith, the film is truly designed to work you over. There’s no sense in The Exorcist that Friedkin believes in anything he’s presenting, and this opportunistic chilliness invigorates the film’s aura of godlessness, lending it a nearly corporeal shape. The Exorcist seems to exist in a realm controlled by a sadist, and Friedkin’s refusal to feign empathy for his characters scans as a strange form of integrity, as if he’s saying, “You know what you’re here for.” Other legendary horror films similarly concerned with the culture quakes of Vietnam, feminism, the sexual revolution, and the civil rights movement—such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—seem cuddly and humanistic by comparison. Allergic to overt poetry or platitude, Friedkin cut straight to the marrow of America’s anxieties, chewing them up and spitting them out in a mass of searing, docudramatic, essentially post-religious ultraviolence.
As an examination of faith challenged and reaffirmed, The Devil and Father Amorth is even less convincing than The Exorcist. Positioning this film as a documentary, Friedkin dares you to call him out on his bullshit, and his shamelessness-as-mock-sincerity gives the production its unruly pulse. Though the filmmaker professes admiration for Father Gabriel Amorth, an exorcist for the Diocese of Rome for 31 years, The Devil and Father Amorth is really the William Friedkin show, suggesting a pilot for a supernatural investigative procedural that might be called The Friedkin Files.
Throughout the documentary, Friedkin hopscotches around Italy and America interviewing professionals about the exorcism he’s shot, which we see at the film’s halfway point, and which will disappoint fans of The Exorcist and every faux-reality possession film to follow in its wake. In fact, this exorcism is a mini masterpiece of dullness, suggesting a cross between a family reunion and a baptism, through which any heathen might be tempted to sleep. Said dullness, periodically enlivened by a demonic voice that’s just a little too traditionally demonic to be trusted, is convincing enough to stimulate the portion of our minds that’s inclined to wonder: What if?
Though Friedkin is too canny to admit it, he frames exorcisms as a symptom of cultural hypnosis, which The Exorcist helped to bring into the modern age. Which is to say that his egotism is qualified by a sly strain of auto-critique. The filmmaker interviews neurosurgeons and psychiatrists, who are chillingly hesitant to attribute beliefs of demonic possession to superstition, diplomatically defining possession as a “dissociative state” and suggesting that exorcisms function as an alternate form of therapy.
In this context, however, such hesitation scans less as diplomacy than as awareness of the phenomenal power of the Catholic Church. Stunningly, an archbishop in Los Angeles is more skeptical of these beliefs than the scientists, though he nevertheless professes a fear of the devil that illustrates the collective hold such concepts have on society. The Devil and Father Amorth raises a possibility that’s pointedly absent from most possession films, which often unofficially serve as Catholic recruiting tools: that the devil is Catholicism’s greatest friend as well as foe, cementing the religion’s bedrock of influence. The Devil and Father Amorth is a flimsy stunt, but in his blunt, slapdash way, Friedkin locates the intersection existing between religion and pop culture—a fusion that insidiously steers political currents.