“At the time I made the film The Exorcist, I had never seen an exorcism,” notes director William Friedkin at the start of The Devil and Father Amorth, a just-barely feature-length documentary. Over its 70 minutes, we will see Friedkin witness an exorcism, one of the 500,000 that reportedly transpire in Italy each year, and its subject’s ninth. (Exorcism, I guess, is like chiropractic care: One visit won’t do it.) There will be much writhing and teeth-gnashing and unflappable priestly dignity as the exorcist of the title, the 91-year-old Father Amorth, guides a purportedly possessed woman and her demon through their Out with thee! paces.
Rather than the festering bedroom of Friedkin’s first go at this material, The Devil and Father Amorth’s showdown between the (alleged!) forces of good and evil unfolds in a sort of sacred conference room, brightly lit and packed with family members, who dutifully hold the possessed to her chair. It drags on, the encounter fascinating at first but soon, in the manner of most rituals, repetitive and opaque to those of us outside. At times, it looks like some role-playing therapy inspired by Friedkin’s horror classic. One revelation: This devil, if it is a devil, is pretty milquetoast in its spewing compared to the one that William Peter Blatty wrote for The Exorcist. “Leave this daughter of God!” Father Amorth intones. “She is mine! She belongs to me!” the woman growls back, her voice so deep and raspy you might suspect it’s been made more wicked in post. Later, the devil adopts the language of Anonymous: “We are armies!” it insists, “armies!”
You know what you don’t need to shout when you have armies? That you have armies.
A second revelation of The Devil and Father Amorth: Having witnessed an exorcism does not seem to be the key factor in whether one can make a good film about an exorcism. Somehow, in the 45 years since The Exorcist, Friedkin has lost the knack. We can’t blame him, really, for the underwhelming nature of the incident itself, as he tells us that the Vatican would let him bring in only one camera and no crew. But the scenes leading up to the encounter exhibit a careless cheesiness: Chill at a glimpse of the actual Georgetown house where Friedkin, uh, shot exteriors for The Exorcist. (“Now, the house doesn’t look today the way it looked back in 1972,” he explains.) Georgetown University gets clumsily introduced twice in 30 seconds, by Friedkin and then, in an archival clip, the late Blatty, as if it’s an inherently fascinating hotbed of satanic activity. Once in a while, apropos of nothing, horror-film strings kick in on the soundtrack, never more amusingly than over a late-in-the-film establishing shot of Columbia University's psych building on a crisply sunny afternoon.
The doc occasionally perks up as neurologists and psychiatrists study Friedkin’s exorcism footage and offer their theories. At Columbia, experts trot out what sounds to me like the truth: dissociative trance disorder, a placebo response and the participation of possessed and priest in a ritual informed by a shared understanding that this is just how these things play out. Nobody mentions that the popularity of Friedkin’s film might inform that ritual and its collaborative improvisations. One of the religious authorities consulted trots out the Hamlet line that’s forever abused in supernatural entertainments and dorm-room UFO kibitzing: There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
A more enlightening study of Italy’s current exorcism boom can be found in Federica Di Giacomo’s 2017 doc Deliver Us, which exposes the priests’ face-offs with spirits inside their parishioners as an everyday grind like any other. The Devil and Father Amorth, by contrast, plays like a Friedkin-flavored Unsolved Mysteries or one of those TV specials about the supernatural that William Shatner used to star in, obliged to note the rational explanation but really only invested in the irrational ones. It’s stuck between earnest examination of a case and exploitative hustle — and is unlikely to please the audiences interested in either. All that said, if Friedkin plans to continue this documentary tour through the reality of his film scenarios, I welcome a Sorcerer-inspired film where he drives explosives through the jungle, or a Cruising-inspired one where he gets to cruising.