leap of faith review

Alexandre O. Philippe loves to make movies about movies. His documentary work includes 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, which focused on Psycho, and the creation of its infamous shower scene, and Memory: The Origins of Alien, which thoughtfully explored what made, and still makes, Alien so special. Philippe keeps the trend going with Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist. As the title suggests, the doc has director William Friedkin sitting down to discuss one of his most iconic films, and since Friedkin is such a gifted storyteller, the result is wholly engrossing. But there’s a problem: you’ve probably heard everything Friedkin says here before. But there’s one key question that lingers over the film: the question as to whether or not the ending works. According to Friedkin, surprisingly enough, the answer is no.

The Exorcist is iconic, and whenever a film enters into the iconic stage, there’s much to be said about it. Several different home media releases have resulted in making-of featurettes devoted to the film. There’s also the excellent 1998 documentary The Fear Of God: 25 Years Of The Exorcist, which details nearly every facet of the film, from conception, to production, to release. Acolytes of the film have likely watched all these making-of specials and documentaries multiple times (I know I have). Sadly, this makes Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist a bit redundant. There’s nothing said here – save for one or two things – that hasn’t been said before.

And yet, Leap of Faith is never disappointing. Even if you know everything being recounted here, it doesn’t hurt to hear it again. Much like Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary De PalmaLeap of Faith sits a filmmaker down and lets him talk. The filmmaker is William Friedkin, who has a slew of great films to his name. The Exorcist is arguably Friedkin’s most popular film, and as a result, he’s spoken about it multiple times. This is beneficial, in a way, because it means he’s been able to refine and practice his storytelling over the years, to the point where he’s become a master storyteller. Friedkin is a man who knows how to paint a picture with words just as well as he does with a camera.

With Leap of Faith, Philippe says that he wanted to make a “personal, intimate chamber film, and to reveal the real, raw, introspective Friedkin; unencumbered by the lore, tall tales, and mythologies that we are all too familiar with,” and adds that he “watched the film for 30 days straight, and ended up conducting an epic 6-day one-on-one interview.”

Philippe keeps things interesting by cutting in footage not just of The Exorcist, but from many of Friedkin’s other films, including Sorcerer and Killer Joe. Footage from Citizen Kane2001: A Space Odyssey, and more, also get some attention. It all works well, but when compared to 78/52 and MemoryLeap of Faith feels oddly muted, even simplistic. For those who have next to no knowledge about the making of The ExorcistLeap of Faith may be eye-opening indeed. But for those of us who know these stories inside and out, Leap of Faith may be a bit redundant, but it’s never dull.

After a brief summary of his early days, Friedkin goes into the making of The Exorcist. He recounts how the only film he drew influence from was Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1955 Ordet, about a family dealing with religious conflict. It’s a “simple, elegant film” according to Friedkin, and he used some of Dreyer’s staging to set up the shots on The Exorcist. Other influences include the paintings of Caravaggio, and several pieces of classical music.

Friedkin goes into several elements of making the film. Casting comes up early, and he reveals something he claims he’s never revealed before: William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist and co-writer of the screenplay, offered to waive his fee if Friedkin would let him play the role of Father Karras, the dour, doomed priest played so memorably by Jason Miller. Obviously, Friedkin didn’t go for the idea.

Other highlights include a discussion about the music in the film. Friedkin originally wanted Bernard Herrmann to score the movie, and showed the legendary composer a rough cut. Herrmann came out of the theater and immediately told Friedkin: “Well, I think I can save this piece of shit!” Offended, Friedkin turned him down, even though he also acknowledges that Herrmann was one of the best composers of all time.

The storytelling about the making of the film is entertaining and even whimsical at times. But the real meat of Leap of Faith arises when Friedkin waxes existentially about what it all means. “Do I believe there’s such a thing as demonic possession?” he asks. “I have no idea.”

Perhaps most fascinating of all is Friedkin’s confession that he doesn’t entirely understand the ending of his own film. “What you bring to a film, especially The Exorcist, is what you take away from it,” he says here. In case you somehow have never seen The Exorcist, here’s how the ending unfolds: after the exorcism of a young girl named Regan (Linda Blair) has failed, resulting in the deaths of one of the priests (Max von Sydow) in the process, the remaining priest, Father Karras, begins attacking the possessed girl, ordering the demon inside her to take him instead. After a bit of a struggle, that’s exactly what happens: the demon jumps out of Regan and into Karass, at which point Karass throws himself through a window and tumbles down one killer set of steps.

The scene itself seems rather straightforward, but to this day, it has Friedkin puzzled. “Why would the demon pay attention to Karass?” he wonders here, before adding that maybe Karass was the demon’s main target all along. But before he allows that theory to stand, he shoots it down by calling the ending “a flaw” and adding that he never entirely bought it. Much like Karass’s demise, it requires a leap of faith.

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