The Exorcist remains one of the high points of the horror genre that continues to captivate audiences with its uniquely terrifying portrayal of demonic possession and the Catholic ritual of exorcism. More than 40 years after he brought the horrific tale by William Peter Blatty to the screen, director William Friedkin still seems to be quite intrigued by the rite of exorcism as well as the legacy of his masterwork of horror. Friedkin revisits The Exorcist and demonic possession in his new documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, filming an actual exorcism performed by Father Gabriel Amorth, the exorcist for the Diocese of Rome. It’s a messy piece of documentary filmmaking from a filmmaking legend, a film where Friedkin is trying to prove what he believes to be true, concrete evidence be damned.
Friedkin directs and is his own narrator, first starting by introducing himself as the director of The Exorcist and taking the viewer to locations from the movie and interviewing the author behind the film, the aforementioned Blatty. That William Peter Blatty found real life inspiration for his novel is the starting point that Friedkin chooses. The he propels his film to Rome, introducing us to Father Amorth and telling us that the priest is a fan of Friedkin’s film even if he thought the special effects were over the top.
In Italy, we’re told, there are around 500,000 exorcisms performed each year. Friedkin gets permission from Father Amorth to film an exorcism. However, there are conditions – only Friedkin is allowed; no crew, no lights. The subject of this exorcism is Christina (an alias), an architect about to undergo her ninth exorcism. This is the start of where William Friedkin and his film begin to fly off the rails. Friedkin sits back and films Christina rocking back and forth as Father Amorth prays over her. She convulses and has to be restrained by a family member. The prayers continue and these warped guttural noises come from this frail architect. Is she possessed or is she suffering from a form of undiagnosed mental illness? Has Friedkin tampered with the audio to make this woman sound more menacing or does she actually sound like that? These are the questions that linger and neither will have satisfactory answers.
The director posits that you can only be possessed by the devil if you believe in the devil, and he’s got a point there because most people would probably consult a medical professional before a priest if afflicted with a mysterious illness that induced involuntary convulsing. Friedkin then takes his footage to various experts in the theological and medical fields. As hard as he tries to get these educated professionals to concede, they more or less just placate him with the acknowledgement that there are things we just don’t know about. You can’t blame anyone for not wanting to call an Oscar-winning director on his bullshit to his face.
The Devil and Father Amorth wouldn’t be so ethically troubling if Friedkin used his film for a genuine exploration of faith and questioning the realm of what’s possible. Instead, Friedkin talks to the camera like a sensationalist huckster lacking the gravitas that Robert Stack was able to lend even the cheesiest episode of Unsolved Mysteries. It gets even worse when Friedkin adds a little coda to the story of Christina, one where there’s not a single second of recorded evidence. The director recalls meeting Christina and her husband in a church where they threaten his life for footage of the exorcism. All kinds of after effects are added to warped, colorized footage of the church as Friedkin recalls this wildly implausible tale as if it were an episode of World’s Wildest Police Videos. Even if you were with Friedkin most of the way, this moment of outlandish storytelling should leave any viewer with a considerable amount of doubt as to the veracity of the film’s claims.
Though only a hair over an hour long, The Devil and Father Amorth feels like it was stretched beyond the point of reason. As much as Friedkin has earned respect with his impressive filmography, The Devil and Father Amorth is pretty much just a glorified DVD extra with flimsy production values and a sense of self-aggrandizement. I’m not a believer in God or the Devil, but I wanted to believe that William Friedkin was a legendary filmmaker and not a huckster selling a bundle of bad goods.