It’s well known along the Headstuff corridors of power that I have a habit of rambling. Not today. If I have learned anything from watching William Freidkin’s latest film, The Devil and Father Amorth, it is how to be succinct as this is a film I don’t want to dwell on for too long. How I’d love to build a myth and say that this is due to some sense of fear or concern for my mortal soul…but I can’t because it’s not.
The Devil and Father Amorth is a terrible film, boasting the worst attempt at documentary filmmaking I have ever seen, especially considering the pedigree and associated history that Friedkin has with the subject matter. The director’s attempts to un-nerve and disquiet his audience are so shambolic that they are often laughable, and what makes it worse is the squandered potential of a topic that has fascinated humanity since the birth of organised religion – the battle between good and evil for your very soul
It concerns (according to Friedkin) the first church sanctioned filming of an exorcism. And who better than the director of The Exorcist to film it. It’s like all the stars aligned…to form a hand flipping the bird. Clocking in at a brisk 66 minutes, The Devil and Father Amorth feels twice that length, mainly because Friedkin doesn’t have a clear idea about what type of film he’s making. He lurches from one trashy angle on exorcism to another in a desperate attempt to fill the already brief running time.
Easily half the film concerns itself with Friedkin walking around Georgetown, visiting the famous locations of his opus, The Exorcist, and discussing its production. Even this segment is padded out further with archive footage of the now deceased William Peter Blatty talking about the actual event from his childhood that inspired him to write the novel the film was based upon. He even enlists the help of Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of The Prince of Darkness, to discuss evil and how prevalent it is in modern society. This segment is actually far and away the most interesting, Burton Russell proving just odd enough to be interesting and not pious enough to be off putting. I would gladly have watched an hour of him discussing the history of Satan and the mythology of evil.
Unforgivably, he only barely touches upon the subject of the exorcism of a 46-year-old Italian woman who has been exorcised 8 times before by the titular Father Amorth (for the record, the actual exorcism is a 17-minute section overall). This is the most ridiculous part of the film as Friedkin tries to unnerve the viewer with cinematic tools, focus shifting and sound effects, pushing the subject from intriguing to trashy. By doing so he dilutes whatever raw emotion and power there is in the performance of an exorcism. Indeed, according to Friedkin himself, the most shocking part of the exorcism occurred off camera, so we only have his testimony of the subject speaking in tongues and contorting her body at hideous angles. It is pure tabloid, clickbait nonsense and does not deserve an audience.
But what really irks about The Devil and Father Amorth is Friedkin himself. He is the director, the narrator, the host and the interviewer. It’s the William Friedkin show and he really grates when trying to be sincere. I have seen better episodes of Most Haunted.
Focusing on the final months of one of Rome’s top exorcism priests, the 91-year-old Father Amorth appears to be a fascinating character. Beloved in his home country by Italy’s devout Catholics, Friedkin’s film should have been an exploration of the man himself, from his youth as a resistance fighter against Mussolini to his later years and a career spanning (according to the man himself) thousands of exorcisms for the Catholic Church.
No, with only fleeting glimpses of the man, the viewer is left with a vast amount of not just unanswered questions but frustratingly unposed questions and the feeling this film has not done him the justice he probably deserves. It’s a shame. What should have been a film to make you question your faith only serves to make you cringe with embarrassment.