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D: William Friedkin / 69m

With: William Friedkin, Gabriele Amorth, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Paolo Vizzacchero, Nadia Vizzacchero, Neil Martin, Itzhak Fried, John Mazziota, Robert Barron

In 1972, director William Friedkin began shooting The Exorcist, an adaptation of the novel by William Peter Blatty. The movie was an unqualified success, partly because of the special effects used to express the nature of the possession. It was also the favourite movie of Father Gabriele Amorth (the ‘h’ is silent), an Italian Roman Catholic priest and the Vatican’s Exorcist in Chief (though he thought the special effects were “over the top”). Having made the most famous movie about an exorcism, Friedkin was given the opportunity in May 2016 to witness (and record) a real exorcism, one carried out by Father Amorth on a 46-year-old Italian woman known as Christina. This would be her ninth exorcism. Afterwards, Friedkin followed up his experience by showing his footage to various interested parties such as clinical neurologists, psychologists, and even the Archbishop of Los Angeles. Having gained their views, Friedkin returned to Italy to meet with Christina again, but their encounter was not what the director was expecting. And due to a variety of circumstances, his enquiry into her possession was left open-ended…

You can see the obvious attraction for Friedkin in making this documentary. And it couldn’t have been difficult to raise the funds to get the movie made. But somewhere along the way, something went dreadfully wrong with the whole idea, leaving The Devil and Father Amorth as something of an odd fish, dredged up from the bottom of the ocean and looking unlike anything seen before. With a lengthy introduction that relates to the making of The Exorcist, Friedkin revisits some of the Georgetown locations where the movie was shot, and includes archive footage of Blatty talking about the inspiration for his novel. It’s perhaps meant to be a nostalgic trip down Memory Lane, a way of explaining how Friedkin came to make this movie as well. But as the movie progresses, it proves to have less and less relevance and feels more like an attempt to pad out a documentary that’s already in danger of having an appropriate running time. Make no mistake: the exorcism footage barely covers a third of the movie’s length, and despite being the “real thing”, isn’t as enthralling as you’d expect. And though it’s meant to be taken seriously, when Christina yells, “I’m Satan! Stop it!” at Father Amorth, it’s hard to believe that possession is really what’s happening.

It’s a view backed up by a number of scientific talking heads – though none of them will come right out and say it. Friedkin asks the question several times: can possession be what the Church says it is? But no one will commit to a straight answer, and though demonic possession is recognised as a psychological disorder, their equivocation is something of a non-starter (where is Richard Dawkins when you need him?). Only the neurologist Itzhak Fried comes close to hitting the scientific nail on the religious head when he says that without a belief in demons then it’s unlikely anyone else will suffer in the same way. To his credit, Friedkin allows the experts’ different opinions to stand unchallenged – who knows, one of them might be right – but spoils everything with a reconstruction from “memory” of the meeting with Christina that sounds like something from 1973. So lacking in credibility is this sequence that it spoils the movie as a whole and makes you wonder if this really is as authentic as claimed; if it is then truth really is stranger than fiction.

Rating: 4/10 – with an exploitative feel to it that further undermines the rationale behind its making, The Devil and Father Amorth is an uncertain movie that can’t decide if it’s making the case for possession or not; Friedkin is a stiff presence in front of the camera, as well as something of a badgering interviewer, but the banality of it all does allow a layer of sincerity that otherwise, would be sorely missed.