When a film isn’t readily made available its rarity makes it all the more enticing, a visual forbidden fruit that someone deemed your eyes unworthy to witness. There’s no greater example of this than Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried, a film the legendary comedian wrote, directed, and starred in, but withheld from ever being seen because he thought the subject matter of a clown leading children to the death chambers of a concentration camp to be in poor taste. Lewis was probably right in terms of taste and his own career in preventing the film from being seen, but he also created a monster. It has been mythologized to the point where the possibility that the film might be seen ten years from now is considered newsworthy.
On the other side of that coin are the genuine masterpieces botched or withheld, like Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, which had 40 minutes of footage removed and destroyed behind the auteur’s back. That missing footage is like the Holy Grail of cinema. For American fans of cinema, the X-rated cut of Ken Russell’s The Devils is among one of those mythical films. Entirely funded by Warner Bros., the film was heavily cut on its release in order to secure an R-rating. The diligent programmers at Beyond Fest, however, made sure that this gorgeous 35mm print of The Devils was shown, and according to Bernard Rose, a filmmaker and friend of the late Ken Russell, only the third time this cut has ever been shown in the United States. What I saw was a masterpiece of cinema, through and through. The film was funny and profound, retaining most of its political and theological relevance to this day. But what shocked me most was the fact that this film, denounced and butchered for its blasphemy and explicit sexuality, wasn’t that shocking as much as it was simply a work of cinematic majesty.
Oliver Reed plays Father Urbain Grandier, a man of the cloth but a man nonetheless. He’s lusted after by the various women of the town, including Sister Jeanne (played by Vanessa Redgrave), sometimes committing to affairs of the flesh despite his vows of chastity. Father Grandier also believes that there’s no scripture to bind priests to chastity, and thus carries out a secret wedding to Madeleine (Gemma Jones), a young woman who shares a love with the fallible father. But the secret marriage had witnesses, some of whom want Father Grandier removed from his position of influence in the town of Loudun, France. What follows is shocking in its depravity and dishonesty. At the behest of Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), Father Barre (Michael Gothard) a priest specializing in exorcisms is called into town and accuses Father Grandier of being a tool for Satan. The nuns led by Sister Jeanne, who dreams lustily about Reed’s Father Grandier, are coerced to lie in order to save their own lives and blame Father Grandier for their afflictions, acting wildly and shedding their clothing in a frenzy of depravity. The lies of all conclude with Father Grandier being martyred, burned at the stake for his non-existent heresy.
The Devils isn’t a film that is simply pushing the boundaries of taste, edging closer and closer to blasphemy until the final reel unspools. This is a rich work of art with deep themes about the exploitation of religion for political purposes. In an era when many of the presidential candidates for one of America’s two political parties believe that a certain religiosity is key to successful governance, and will use religious views as means for political division, The Devils is as true today as it was in 1971. Like many films, The Devils was wrongly viewed, by those who never saw it, as a blasphemous work when it’s in fact it’s a film that’s about the power of religion in the wrong hands, a perversion of faith.
Of course, The Devils isn’t the only great film to draw condemnation and charges of blasphemy from a deeply religious crowd that had never seen the film. Similar problems were encountered for the release of Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Even more recently, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah drew the ire of the religious conservatives for not explicitly saying “God,” despite the fact that half of the dialogue in the film features the word “creator.” What binds all these movies isn’t the absurd accusations of blasphemy, but the fact that they’re each genuine explorations of the nature of faith, typically leaning towards finding its power and grace but never hiding the dark side. With the exception of Ken Russell’s masterpiece, each of these films were released and have been readily available to casual viewers for years. In this respect, however, is where The Devils transubstantiates into its actual lead character, as Grandier is burned at the stake as a heretic despite doing no such deed, The Devils has been locked away in a vault unreleased for its non-existent blasphemy for over 40 years.
Again, The Devils isn’t an exercise in shock cinema. This is a robust work of art, from its magnificent production design to its hard-hitting story about the perversion of faith, to the powerful performance from Oliver Reed and the unsettling performance from Vanessa Redgrave. Yes, there’s a fair amount of psychotic nuns shedding clothing, but that’s entirely rooted in the story and plays to the dark camp that makes up much of The Devils’ sense of humor. It really is quite a funny movie. But Russell also employs some wonderful cinematic devices, using wide angle lenses to slightly distort the frame and hallucinatory dream sequences where Sister Jeanne fantasizes of sexual congress with the doomed Father Grandier. Thematically and visually, The Devils is a robust work of artistry that rubbed a few puritanical morons the wrong way.
Therein lies the tragedy of The Devils. Warner Bros. funded the film outright, and in order to secure an R-rating released the film with devastating cuts. But that was 40 years ago, certainly somebody at the studio would realize that they’re sitting on a masterpiece and would release a restored version of the X-rated cut, right? Nope. I guess when one gets into the habit of capitulating to puritanical morons, the precedent has been set and you know how hard it is to break precedent. Even all these years later, if Warner Bros. were so scared to release the full cut of The Devils, there’s no reason they couldn’t license it out to Criterion, Shout Factory!, or the countless other home video labels that would give this film the loving treatment it deserves. Yet they continue to do nothing, allowing a masterpiece to sit and deteriorate, unseen to even the most ardent of cinema lovers.
The only thing blasphemous about The Devils is the fact that it’s not readily available to studied and discussed. Even if fully restored to include the most shocking scenes of nuns raping a statue of Christ or another nun masturbating with the charred femur of a dead man, The Devils still wouldn’t be blasphemous as it’s a true story, and its shocking and depraved elements are what humanity can be capable of in exploiting the faithful for their own political needs. The Devils is a movie that’s long overdue for its proper critical assessment, for its powerful and unsettling elements to be studied by students of cinema, and for it to be widely understood that the very forces that suppressed the film are the same forces that martyr the protagonist. Even if The Devils were blasphemous, it still would deserve a proper release. But The Devils isn’t blasphemous, it’s brilliant. So c’mon Warner Bros., unleash The Devils already. 44 years is too long to sit on a masterpiece.