The Devil and Father Amorth
Director – William Friedkin
Rating – 3.5/5

A few years ago a documentary film called Jiro Dreams of Sushi was released. It was about an old man, considered to be one of the best sushi chefs in the world. Jiro Ono was in his eighties then, and he would arrive to work at his ten-seat, Michelin-starred restaurant in a Tokyo basement every day, without exception, come rain or draught. Such was his dedication to his craft that his family often lamented at how it had strained their relationship. But Jiro Ono didn’t care. He was, as director David Gelb said, ‘in a relentless pursuit of perfection.’

Jiro will soon turn 93, just two years older than the man who reminded me of him was when he died. Father Gabriele Amorth was a Roman priest, who was at some point during his long and storied career appointed the chief exorcist of the Vatican. He once claimed to have performed close to 200,000 exorcisms in his life, and is the partial subject of the new film by director William Friedkin, The Devil and Father Amorth, available, like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, on Netflix.

On paper, there’s little in common in the respective professions Jiro Ono and Gabriele Amorth chose for themselves, but having watched films about them, it is apparent that both men were driven by an incorruptible sense of purpose, and an unstoppable belief in their very particular set of skills. They sort of look alike, but that’s another matter.

In the Devil and Father Amorth, Friedkin attempts to answer the questions that have been burning like the embers of hell in his mind ever since he directed – to phenomenal success – the touchstone horror picture, The Exorcist.

But a 70-minute film about God and the Devil is hardly going to provide satisfactory answers to questions of such cosmic scope, and Friedkin – who also plays host – seems to be aware of that. So instead, he directs the film as a sort of retroactive qualification course – it still bothers him that he had no real experience of dealing with matters of darkness when he directed The Exorcist more than 40 years ago. This is him atoning for those sins.

So he contacts Father Amorth – whose reputation as the world’s foremost expert on the devil he had heard of – to permit him to accompany the padre on a real exorcism. Immediately, Father Amorth, who looked a little bit like Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda – there’s a cheeky wisdom to his appearance – agreed to let Friedkin tag along, but set conditions. Friedkin would have to come alone and would have to make do with a small consumer camcorder and without professional equipment, or a crew.

Hungry for the experience, Friedkin agrees. He builds up to the exorcism with awkward pieces to camera, shot on the same iconic locations that he filmed The Exorcist at. Perched on top of the famous Exorcist Steps, Friedkin, his collar slightly crooked, talks about his lifelong fascination with good and evil, and the possibility of demonic possession.

There’s a rudimentary quality to the filmmaking in The Devil and Father Amorth, which works in its favour. Friedkin often uses the freeze fame for effect, and even though the film isn’t meant to be scary, its Bernard Hermann-inspired score certainly suggests otherwise. There’s an earnestness in the simplicity of The Devil and Father Amorth, which comes across in Friedkin’s curiosity as host, and the sense that he cut the film on a MacBook.

The highlight, of course, is the exorcism – of an Italian woman named Cristina. Friedkin sits down on a seat across from her, his camera at the ready; like us, apprehensive about the flamboyant ritual that is being prepared before him. Cristina, smiling and visibly nervous, is brought into the nondescript room, with dozens of members of her family occupying every available inch around her and launching into near-silent prayer. Two men position themselves ominously on either side of her. Father Amorth sits in the centre, and begins the ritual in his own signature manner, by thumbing his nose at the devil inside, taunting him, and hopefully enraging him. Father Amorth sprinkles some holy water in Cristina’s general direction, rests a hand on her forehead, and begins chanting.

What happens next is nothing short of extraordinary, and certainly, no amount of scary movies will prepare you for the unsettling experience of watching a ‘real’ exorcism.

Mere seconds after she was smiling, Cristina begins to bob her head rhythmically, to the beats of an internal chant. Her eyes clench shut and her face contorts in anguish. She opens her mouth and the most guttural voice – most definitely not hers – escapes her mouth. “Never!” she screams at Father Amorth, when he asks the devil to leave Cristina’s body. “I am Satan!”

This sequence lasts about 15 minutes, 10 of which appear to have been shot in an unbroken take by Friedkin. Considering that it arrives about mid-way through the film, the scene has a rather make-or-break quality.

There’s a reason why most horror is so divisive – at least all the good horror, the sort that makes you use your imagination. Every moment of The Devil and Father Amorth – just like every moment of the recent Demon House and the slightly older TV show, Ghost Hunters – hinges on your belief in what is happening on screen. Not in ghosts or spirits or demons or anything, but in the people. For films and shows such as this to be effective, you must believe that there exist men and women in our world for whom God and the devil are real.

It doesn’t matter what the boardroom full of psychiatrists and neurologists have to say – rationality is often the most boring way to address such things – but the Devil and Father Amorth is more than just a schlocky oddity, it’s a fascinating exploration of the human brain and the power of religion.

Watch the Devil and Father Amorth trailer here

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

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