It’s not often that a writer or filmmaker introduces a word into general usage, but in the early 1970s, author/screenwriter William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin put the word “exorcist” on everybody’s lips. There have been countless variations on and knockoffs of The Exorcist ever since, including many purporting to tell the truth about the practice and the people who perform it. But Friedkin isn’t having any of it.
“Everything I’ve read about exorcism is bullshit,” he says. “Period. End of story. It’s stuff that’s made up by people who have agendas, people who claim to have done this and seen that, and they haven’t. I have no faith in that other stuff whatsoever, from what I’ve read and experienced. They’re not authentic. They’re not based on actual anything.” He’s quick to add, “Neither was our Exorcist movie! It’s a work of fiction that Blatty created out of whole cloth. He was inspired by the 1949 case in Cottage City, Maryland [in which a young boy was reportedly possessed and exorcized], by reports of that case, not proof or evidence of it.
“Blatty invented the concept of what we think or believe about exorcism in the modern time,” Friedkin continues. “There was nothing written about it back then—nothing in the popular culture, and very little that he could find when he researched. In the Library of Congress, there was nothing, and the Church would tell him nothing, nor should they. The Church doesn’t report on any cases; they don’t say anything about it. All that they say is, ‘There are more demands for exorcism, and we’re going to train more exorcists.’ It’s a very personal and private matter, and also, they don’t want people to know that there are people out there who have been exorcized and not liberated.”
Among those who have not been freed from what Friedkin describes as a “spiritual disease” is Cristina, the Italian woman at the center of Friedkin’s new documentary The Devil and Father Amorth. The film (review here), now available on VOD, is structured around footage the director captured of an actual exorcism performed by the titular Roman Catholic priest, and both explores and questions the realities of the phenomenon of demonic possession. Friedkin had never considered making another movie on the subject, until “this opportunity came along sort of providentially. I was interested in Father Amorth, and I had the chance to meet him and interview him [for a Vanity Fair article], and then film him doing what he does, giving of his life and his skills to help people who sought his aid. That’s really what the movie is about: this very good man and my experience of him, limited as it was. He’s the most spiritual person I’ve ever met.”
And yet Father Amorth, who died in 2016, was not able to free Cristina of her affliction. “I was going to film her 10th exorcism,” Friedkin reveals, “and then Father Amorth caught pneumonia, and never got out of the hospital. She’s seen other priests for exorcisms, and they have not been successful.” Indeed, exorcism, looked at in medical terms, is more of an ongoing treatment than a one-time cure. “Father Amorth exorcized one guy for 16 years,” Friedkin says. “Pope John Paul II was an exorcist in Poland, and he left three cases to Father Amorth—one of whom he liberated, the other two of whom he was still treating at the time of his death.”
Real-life exorcisms, as seen in The Devil and Father Amorth, don’t come with the special effects that fans of the cinematic versions are used to. And Friedkin has little patience for those who might come to his documentary looking for similar spectacle. “What do they want, more? Do they want her to suffer more? Do they want her to fly up to the ceiling and flip around? If they want to see The Exorcist, this isn’t it.”
Many other fictional films have tried to recapture the impact of The Exorcist and fallen short, not least the much-derided Exorcist II: The Heretic. Friedkin recalls that he was offered the sequel, “but I wouldn’t even think about it. Not for more than eight seconds.” Some time later, he adds, “I was in the lab at Technicolor, and they were printing Exorcist II, and the head of the lab said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a print up of Exorcist II here to check it, you want to look at it?’ I said OK and watched seven or eight minutes, and I thought it was the worst film I’d ever seen in my life. It is a piece of wretched garbage, from those first eight minutes—stupid beyond belief. Everything I saw, and I take it all the rest of it, really seemed to be set up to debunk The Exorcist.”
Friedkin himself remains a believer in the realities of exorcism, and says of audiences for The Devil and Father Amorth, “I hope they’re interested enough in it to stay with it. It’s not a work of fiction, it has no special effects, so their expectations have to be more limited. It’s up to the people who see it to decide whatever they feel about it. Those who are skeptical will no doubt remain skeptical. I personally am not a skeptic, and I didn’t approach this or any other story I’ve told as a skeptic.”