A born raconteur, 81-year-old Hollywood legend William Friedkin still has the itch. While some other men his age have already resigned themselves to the golf course (if not the grave), the director of films like “Sorcerer” and “The Exorcist” can’t help but continue to tell stories. He’s possessed by a spiritual compulsion to spin yarns, inflame imaginations, and reach into the unknown folds of our world. It’s been seven years since his last feature (2011’s gleefully insane “Killer Joe”), but the guy hasn’t exactly been twiddling his thumbs — after all, idle hands are the devil’s playthings.
Friedkin’s latest project is basically what happens when an octogenarian auteur — too seasoned to navigate the studio system, but too sprightly to be silenced — picks up a consumer-grade digital camera and makes an unofficial sequel to their most famous film. No lawyers, no money, no crew. Non-union, and non-fiction. And while “The Devil and Father Amorth” doesn’t literally continue the story of “The Exorcist” (that’s already been done, and done, and kind of done again), this straight-faced but sensationalist documentary has an unholy connection to that horror classic. Revisiting the eternal duel between demonic forces and the old men who try to purge them from innocent people, Friedkin explores (and enshrines) the dark power of his most famous movie, insisting that audiences should be even more scared of it now than they were in 1973. That it was more real than even he recognized at the time. He makes a surprisingly strong case, even if he does it in a very silly way.
“When I made the film ‘The Exorcist,’ I had never seen an exorcism” Friedkin says, talking to the camera as though he’s recording a salacious piece for the local news. “Almost four decades later, I witnessed the one you’re about to see.” Actually, forget the local news — this is more like Geraldo Rivera getting ready to open Al Capone’s vault. Standing on the Georgetown campus where he once shot the fight between Father Lankester Merrin and the evil spirit Pazuzu, Friedkin is as much of a showman as ever.
His co-conspirator for this ego-stroking stunt is Father Gabriele Amorth (pronounced ah-mort), a 91-year-old Italian man whom Friedkin refers to as “Rome’s chief exorcist,” as though it were an official title. Certified or not, Amorth has certainly spent his time in the trenches when it comes to the war on Satan; Friedkin tells us that Italy is home to more than 500,000 exorcisms every year, and Amorth — even in his ’90s — continues to perform many of them himself. Another thing that Friedkin tells us, strolling around the locations he once immortalized on film, is that “The Exorcist” is Amorth’s favorite movie. It supposedly helps people to understand his work.
Religious studies scholar Jeffrey Burton Russell, on the other hand, isn’t so convinced that “The Exorcist” has been helpful. One of the few talking heads who appears during the first half of the documentary, the historian looks into the camera and offers a thought that functions as both a stern rebuke and an ominous warning: “The more you start thinking about this stuff, the more you allow for supernatural evil to come in.” Buckle up!
Permission to film an exorcism had never been granted by the Vatican, but Friedkin must have asked very nicely, because Amorth invites him to Italy for a front-row seat. Arriving in Rome, the director is introduced to a seemingly ordinary middle-aged woman he calls “Cristina,” who has already been the subject of eight previous exorcisms. Much like psychological counseling, one session is seldom enough to “cure” a patient. In the comprehensive (and far more compelling) Vanity Fair article that Friedkin wrote about the events of this film, the director states that Cristina “couldn’t work because of the fits and behavioral changes that came over her, most severely on the Christian holidays, such as Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, Easter, and Pentecost.” Was she was just getting fidgety at church, or is it possible that she was possessed by the Great Deceiver? There’s only one way to find out.
The exorcism itself is the least entertaining thing about the movie, even though it eats up a sizable and unbroken chunk of the 68-minute running time. Sitting in a nondescript room that’s filled with friends and relatives, Amorth thumbs his nose at Satan and puts his hands on Cristina’s head. Morbid curiosity soon gives way to mild boredom, even after the woman starts growling in a guttural voice that sure sounds like it was augmented in post-production. She writhes and wails, rosary beads flopping around her neck. There isn’t much to look at — the real spectacle here is the asymmetry of Amorth’s deep-pocketed jowls, a cinematic marvel in their own right (if nothing else, this film does a great service by preserving such a remarkable face).
Eventually, you might start to hope that Friedkin is getting ready to throw a curveball, establishing “The Devil and Father Amorth” as a documentary so that he can catch us off-guard when the shit hits the fan. No such luck. The exorcism comes to an unremarkable end, at which point the film shifts its focus away from the spiritual and more towards the scientific, Friedkin showing his footage to people like Dr. Neil Martin (chief of neurosurgery at the UCLA Medical Center) and asking for their professional opinions.
The resulting testimony is inconclusive, many of the talking heads looking at the legend sitting across from them as though he’s lost the plot. All of them help legitimize Friedkin’s belief that there is more to the world than we now understand, but few of them address the underlying truth of the matter that Jeffrey Burton Russell articulated so well before the action began: Spiritual forces require a certain degree of faith to exert their power. Whether Cristina is actually possessed by the devil or not is irrelevant — all that matters is that she believes that she is. We certainly believe that she believes. Father Amorth brings further credence to the tug-of-war between good and evil, his divine authority serving as a conduit through which all manner of phantasmagoria might enter the real world.
As the film winds down (climaxing with a limp bit of showmanship when the director conveniently doesn’t bring his camera into the scariest scene), it becomes clear that Friedkin plays a similar role for the secular world. Films like his — even very flimsy ones like “The Devil and Father Amorth” — require, create, and sustain a belief in a world beyond the one we can see with our own two eyes. They shape and distort our understanding of what’s real and what’s not. Father Amorth died in 2016, but if “The Exorcist” was his favorite movie — something that he, and Cristina, and presumably also everyone else in that bland white room had seen at some point in their lives — then maybe Russell was right. Maybe thinking about the devil is enough to make him real; maybe a movie that gets under our skin has the power to possess us in its own way. And for those of us who, like Friedkin, don’t believe in Hell, cinema can be our Great Deceiver.
“The Devil and Father Amorth” opens in theaters on Friday, April 20.