Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

William Friedkin's ridiculous documentary The Devil And Father Amorth is almost trashy enough to be funny

Illustration for article titled William Friedkin's ridiculous documentary The Devil And Father Amorth is almost trashy enough to be funny
Photo: The Orchard

The late Father Gabriele Amorth, founder of the International Association Of Exorcists, claimed to have performed tens of thousands of exorcisms in his career, a rate that realistically would have had him working office hours to cast out Satan seven days a week. There were other claims, too: that Stalin and Hitler were possessed; that demonic influence was being spread across the world by Harry Potter, yoga, ouija boards, freemasons, and, of course, the Gypsies; that Satan controlled the Italian version of Deal Or No Deal. A reasonable person would come to the conclusion that the guy was a huckster and crank, peddling a weak tonic of feel-good and feel-bad. But not William Friedkin. In his documentary The Devil And Father Amorth, the veteran filmmaker offers his own test of faith: Will viewers sit through what’s basically a DIY episode of I Was Possessed-level trash TV if it comes by way of the director of The Exorcist (not coincidentally Amorth’s favorite film) and The French Connection?

Friedkin is no stranger to material that flagrantly flirts with trash, from Cruising to Killer Joe. But The Devil And Father Amorth is pure tabloid. Its centerpiece: an “authentic” exorcism straight out of an old Italian shockumentary in the Mondo Cane vein, recorded by Friedkin for a 2016 article about Amorth for Vanity Fair (“The Devil And Father Amorth: Witnessing ‘The Vatican Exorcist’ At Work”), presented in an uncut 17-minute shot, and featuring laughable acting by the “possessed” spruced up with cheesy sound effects. In it, the forces of evil do battle against the power of autofocus. The stuff is about as convincing as a chain letter and requires considerable padding, despite a slim running time. Thus, there are cheap travelogue segments (visits to the filming locations of The Exorcist, the Scala Sancta in Rome, etc.); tinted shots of decidedly unscary cathedrals accompanied by canned screaming; even an excerpt from a ’90s BBC documentary about the making of The Exorcist. And there are, of course, interviews with various experts who are professionally obligated to give non-answers to Friedkin’s leading questions: doctors asked to give diagnoses based on a video (of course they won’t), Catholic clerics asked to confirm the validity of exorcism (well, it’s part of church dogma), and the like.

At least Friedkin’s interview style is interesting: noir-ish, distorted low-angle close-ups shot handheld, with occasional cuts to show the 82-year-old director operating his little Sony mirrorless camera from below eye level. The fact that every interviewee seems to have some kind of skin problem adds another grotesque element: a bishop with a peeling nose, a neurosurgeon whose face is inexplicably plastered in Band-Aids. (Even the possessed, an Italian woman in her late 30s or early 40s, has acne.) But mostly, Friedkin does the talking, never missing an opportunity to strain credulity or flaunt his credentials, which in this case begin and end at directing The Exorcist.

Admittedly, the director makes for an endearingly corny host, with an oratorical style that’s part late-night infomercial, part Unsolved Mysteries with a touch of Troy McClure. Standing in front of staircases or altars, sometimes holding a camera for effect, he addresses the audience with ridiculous dramatic pauses (“she is said to be possessed… by the Devil,” “completely by accident… or was it providence?”), chopping the air with one hand while horror-movie music screeches in the background. One set-up begins: “On this quiet little street, in this quiet town…” Another: “I’ve always been fascinated by the nature of good and evil and the possibility of demonic possession.” It’s an acquired taste, but this kind of beyond-parody junk can be ironically entertaining in chunks, before the tedium sets in. And if Friedkin ever comes to his senses, he’s at least written himself a killer excuse: Satan made him do it.