The Devil and Father Amorth: The Power of Christ Does Not Compel You, by Jim Rohner
Legacies must not be easy things to live with. For good or for ill, the legacy that one cements for oneself may act not only as a lens through which their history is viewed but can also act as a track guiding one’s future path to a certain degree – Peter Jackson will probably always be known as the Lord of the Rings guy no matter what films he makes moving forward; Mark Messier’s Game seven guarantee and subsequent Stanley Cup win in 1994 have forever cast him as the leader of leaders; and Linda Susan Boreman – otherwise known as Linda Lovelace – had a hard time holding down regular jobs after Deep Throat. Legacies speak to both where you’ve been and thus, where you’ll go.
Case in point, The Devil and Father Amorth, the latest film from William Friedkin. Friedkin, for those of you who have never watched a movie, directed The Exorcist in 1973 to the tune of 2 Oscar wins, 8 more nominations, and a worldwide gross of over $443 million (in 1970s dollars). Though Friedkin’s directorial career isn’t short on highlights –The French Connection, Sorcerer, Bug – he’ll likely be known first and foremost until the day he dies as the guy who directed arguably the greatest horror film of all time. His attachment to that film and perhaps subsequently his own spirituality seems to make him the perfect director for The Devil and Father Amorth, a documentary about Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s alleged “chief exorcist,” and his seemingly Sisyphean quest to exorcise an Italian woman of a demon claiming to be the devil (“I am Legion” it allegedly even claims at one point).
The exorcism, which Friedkin, in an unprecedented move from the Vatican, is allowed to film, will be Father Amorth’s ninth attempt to purge the evil from the woman’s soul. One would expect, of course, that this scene would be both the film’s visceral and emotional culmination and apex, and while it would be unfair to criticize reality’s – or, for the skeptics, the doc’s verisimilitude – lack of drama, the relative tameness of the sacrament combined with the general amateurish aesthetic of the filming (Friedkin was only permitted to film were he to do it alone) lend an anti-climactic YouTube quality to the proceedings.
Not helping lift viewers up from any emotional letdown that they may have experienced from the apparently unsuccessful exorcism is a recollection, in voiceover only, of a much more dramatic showdown in which the possessed allegedly bends the laws of the physical world right before our narrator’s eyes. Lends the film any more credibility this relay does not, but by that time, Friedkin seems to assume that you’re already on board with what he’s documenting anyway. It’s a shame that that assumption exists because without some sort of emotional or intellectual stake in what’s happening, you’ll likely already have mentally checked out by the time the really interesting bits of the film show up.
Surprisingly – for a film that allegedly documents a real exorcism – those interesting bits are the talking heads from the medical community, psychologists, neuroscientists, and other science-based professionals whose presence you’d think would signal a splash of cold water on an otherwise hot button issue. Instead, its Friedkin’s open mind and intellect as an interviewer and documentarian that engages these experts on an intellectual level and helps contextualize what we’ve seen transpire with what we currently understand about our own physical existence. Rather than revealing a division between the scientific and the spiritual, Friedkin actually manages to find and focus on a compromise between the two, a seeming consensus that if the patient believed they were possessed, then that is how treatment, be it an exorcism or psychoanalysis, would be approached.
This philosophical truce, however, is at best a bittersweet discovery as it helps The Devil and Father Amorth stand out from some other docs or manifestos with a singular purpose of supporting or criticizing but it also seems to splinter the focus of a film that, as the title seemed to imply, revolved around one man’s holy quest. Perhaps Friedkin, 40+ years removed from his cinematic meditation on faith vs. skepticism, wasn’t the one best suited for the job. Perhaps legacy is its own demon that needs exorcising.