Leap of Faith Review

It’s been 46 years since its release, and The Exorcist is as fascinating as when it first came out in theaters. You’d think it’s not a film that would still invite analysis after so many years, but ask anyone about what they think the film is ultimately about or what that final scene means, and you’re bound to start a lengthy conversation.

Alexandre O. Philippe recognizes this. The Swiss filmmaker, who previously tackled fandom and Star Wars in The People vs. George Lucas, ingeniously deconstructed the Psycho shower scene in 78/52, and most recently dissected every aspect of Alien in Memory: The Origins of Alien, now takes a simpler yet equally effective approach to his subject in his latest documentary, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist.

The subject, of course, is William Friedkin, probably the best and utmost authority on the film because he directed it. Though obviously limited cinematically due to the lack of dozens of interviewees or angles from which to dissect the film, Friedkin’s involvement and his sheer charisma turns Leap of Faith into a fascinating and entertaining exploration of filmmaking, faith, and the improbability of getting a film made.

As Friedking himself puts it, what makes The Exorcist immediately special is that a movie about demonic possession hadn’t been done before, especially in such a grounded way. Indeed, until the last third of the film, we don’t really know what is happening to this 12-year-old girl. Friedkin then talks a lot about Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ambiguous religious drama, Ordet, which was the main inspiration for The Exorcist

Philippe remains off-camera throughout the film, shooting his interviewee over the span of six days in a classical talking-head style and cutting that interview to a lean two hours that never feel boring. With a fireplace in the background, the film is content with letting Friedkin discuss the making of his iconic film, and it works, in part thanks to the somber chamber-orchestral score that wraps the film. Philippe knows not to match Friedkin’s outspoken and charismatic personality by talking to the camera, but instead laces the film with humor via the editing, which creates witty illustrations of Friedkin’s narration with archival footage. 

As Friedkin himself says at one point in the film – recalling his own experience making documentaries – the direction of a documentary is dictated by the unpredictable words of its interviewees. Indeed, Leap of Faith doesn’t have a traditional structure per se, but it isn’t a detriment. We ease into the main discussion about the making of The Exorcist with anecdotes about how seeing Orson Welles’ movies in the theater made Friedkin interested in making movies, to the nature of faith. While some viewers may be turned off by the seemingly lack of structure, when the interviewee is William Friedkin, the burden seems light enough. Philippe masterfully guides and edits the interview with grace while also investigating the different topics with a fine-tooth comb. This allows the film to inform those who haven’t read every book on the making of the film while also providing delightful entertainment to those who are familiar with every aspect of how The Exorcist was made.

One of the biggest pleasures of Leap of Faith is that we’re never quite sure how seriously the filmmaker takes himself. The documentary doesn’t really offer much in terms of new information that a diehard fan of The Exorcist wouldn’t already know, and Philippe knows this. Instead, the documentary is more interested in how Friedkin tells his story than what he’s saying. By only having a single interviewee, Philippe allows Friedkin to write his own legend as well as add to the mythology of the film, and allows the audience to decide how much we want to believe Friedkin’s suggestion that The Exorcist was the product of some divine intervention that was set on having this film get made. 

That being said, there are plenty of fascinating stories about the making of The Exorcist that show Friedkin is as good a storytelling in front of the camera as he is behind it. Tales of celebrated character actress Mercedes McCambridge’s painful process to achieve the haunting voice of the demon Pazuzu, how Friedkin fired guns on set to provoke reactions from the actors, or his attempt to have Bernard Herrmann provide the film’s music score.

Certainly, the biggest new piece of information pertains the relationship between Friedkin and The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty. From Friedkin discarding Blatty’s initial draft for the film’s script saying it was “a travesty”, to the author’s desperation to being part of the film – to the point of offering his entire cut of the film’s profits to play the role of Father Damien Karras, who was initially going to be performed by Stacy Keach before going to playwright Jason Miller. Of course, we can’t know for sure as the late Blatty isn’t on hand to verify any of this, but it nevertheless makes for a compelling companion to Friedkin’s film. Philippe, by having a single interview throughout the entirety of the film, allows Friedkin to present himself as a three-dimensional character who knows his own flaws. Friedkin may think highly of himself at times (arguably deservedly so), but he isn’t above admitting his limitations, as he does when discussing the final scene of The Exorcist, and Friedkin’s lack of understanding what happened in the scene.

Leap of Faith shows that you don’t need much in the way of graphics or a huge number of interviews to make a compelling documentary. Alexandre O. Philippe continues to impress by challenging what we knew of making-of documentaries with a poetic and lyrical film that’s as entertaining as its subject is eloquent, and a fascinating and thought-provoking as the horror classic that the documentary explores.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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About the Author

Rafael Motamayor (@RafaelMotamayor) is a recovering-cinephile and freelance writer from Venezuela currently based in Norway. He likes writing about horror despite being the most scary-cat person he knows.