the devil and father amorth review

It’s been nearly 45 years since director William Friedkin first terrified audiences with The Exorcist, and now the filmmaker is ready to return to the taboo religious practice with the documentary The Devil and Father Amorth.

The concept is too irresistible to pass up: here’s the director of The Exorcist making a documentary about a real exorcism. It practically markets itself. Friedkin, for his part, heavily leans in to the idea, devoting the first 10 to 15 minutes of The Devil and Father Amorth with a brief recap of how he came to make The Exorcist. From this intro, the thrust of the film becomes clear: the title may be The Devil and Father Amorth, but it’s William Friedkin who is front and center.

Friedkin is our doomsaying guide through the film, often affecting an over-dramatic tone to spin his narrative, and there are times when this feels less like a documentary and more like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, with Friedkin filling in for the late Robert Stack. That’s a fun idea, in theory, but the end result leaves a lot to be desired. Ultimately, The Devil and Father Amorth is less a test of one’s faith and more a test of one’s patience.

As The Devil and Father Amorth unfolds, we can’t help but stop and ask – just what is Friedkin’s game here? Is this a cheeky, winking expose of beliefs and superstitions, or is this an earnest examination of souls in torment? Or – perhaps this is closer to the truth – does Friedkin simply know how to exploit a good story when he sees one?

The Father Amorth of the title is Father Gabriel Amorth, an exorcist for the Vatican for more than three decades, which makes him pretty high-up on the spiritual totem pole. As Friedkin underlines via an interview with another priest, not just any man of the cloth can become an exorcist. An exorcist needs to be someone so spiritually pure, so utterly incorruptible, that they’re practically a walking, talking saint always ready to duke it out with the devil.

But who is Father Amorth? Near the end of the film, Friedkin calls him one of the most holy people he’s ever known, but we never truly get to know this diminutive crusader for Christ. Amorth appears only sparingly, and while we do get to see him perform an exorcism, his actual character remains something of a mystery. The only insight Friedkin offers is when he reveals that Amorth claimed The Exorcist was his favorite movie.

After some correspondence, Friedkin decides to take a leap and ask Father Amorth if he can film one of the holy man’s exorcisms in Italy. Amorth ponders this (off screen), then agrees, under the condition that Friedkin film the event himself, with only one camera and no crew.

The supposedly possessed person is Cristina, a young woman who has been exorcised by Father Amorth a whopping eight times. It is the ninth exorcism that occupies a large chunk of The Devil and Father Amorth’s brief runtime (the film is only slightly over one hour long).

The Devil and Father Amorth Trailer

Anyone expecting an exorcism scene ripped from Friedkin’s Exorcist should check themselves – there’s no levitation, no projectile vomiting, no visits from the demon Pazuzu. Instead, the exorcism takes place in a well-lit room, where Cristina and her large extended family have gathered. What follows is a long sequence in which Father Amorth prays and and commands the demon possessing Cristina to leave while Cristina writhes in a chair, screaming and shouting.

You will surely notice that Cristina’s screams sound particularly demonic, almost inhuman. Is the audio tweaked for Cristina’s “demonic” voice? I suspect it is, but I doubt Friedkin would ever cop to it – that would spoil the fun. And deep down, despite all his earnest glances to the camera, fun is what Friedkin is trying to have here.

After the exorcism, Friedkin turns to a team of medical experts, all of whom are very polite and don’t laugh the director out of the room when he asks them if they think possession and exorcisms are real. Some of the more interesting moments of the film arrive here, particularly when one doctor compares exorcism to psychology. Just as a psychologist listens to a person’s mental problems and attempts to treat them through human contact, so too is an exorcist trying to heal with words. It’s an interesting theory, and it would’ve been better for everyone had Friedkin focused more on that. But that’s not where his interests lie.

Instead, the filmmaker wants to rattle his audience. He cranks up the volume on some spooky music and he keeps hitting all the high notes when it comes to his ominous narration. It all culminates in a sequence that has to be seen to be believed. Months after the exorcism, Friedkin is summoned by Cristina to a small Italian village. The director makes the journey, and is supposed to meet Cristina inside a church. Somehow, Friedkin – a master filmmaker – forgets to bring his camera into the church for this confrontation. So rather than show us, Friedkin narrates what happened – Cristina, in full-blown demonic form, allegedly hurled threats and curses at him.

To amp up the drama of his narration for this scene, Friedkin stages a recreation by bringing a camera crew into the church after the fact, tinting the screen a sickly green, and having the cinematographer jerk the camera every which way, zooming in and out on religious statues and flickering candles. This may sound like I’m giving too much away, but trust me – no description can do this utterly baffling sequence justice.

With its brief runtime, The Devil and Father Amorth ends up feeling more like a home video special feature – something to add to a new Blu-ray edition of The Exorcist, perhaps – than a full-blown documentary. But Friedkin is too talented for The Devil and Father Amorth to be a complete wash. Here and there, he captures some surreal moments that make the movie shine. Perhaps the best example of this comes following the exorcism: it turns out the ritual was being performed on Father Amorth’s birthday, and after he’s supposedly cast the devil out of Cristina, the formerly possessed woman and her family gather around the elderly priest and begin singing “Happy Birthday.”

The Devil and Father Amorth’s premise is too good to ignore, but don’t be surprised if you come away from the film wishing Friedkin had dug deeper; had sought out some sort of truth instead of just having a good time. The devil is in the details, and Friedkin has unfortunately left most of them out.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

Cool Posts From Around the Web:

About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net