The hook of William Friedkin’s The Devil and Father Amorth is the opportunity to see an actual exorcism—the genuine article, without the famous actors and special effects of Friedkin’s 1973 classic The Exorcist—on screen. The surprise is that the most interesting element of this documentary is not the rite itself, but where Friedkin goes with it.
Father Gabriele Amorth (who passed away in 2016) was the head exorcist for the Diocese of Rome for 30 years, in a country where, according to Friedkin’s Devil narration, half a million requests for exorcisms are made every year. One of those afflicted was a woman, given the pseudonym “Cristina” in the movie, whom Father Amorth had already treated eight times before he responded positively to Friedkin’s request to capture such a rite on camera. With the provisos that Friedkin shoot it himself, with no lights or crew, the director was allowed to sit in on Father Amorth’s ninth attempt to cast the devil out of Cristina.
Inevitably, the footage Friedkin shot, which begins before the midpoint of The Devil and Father Amorth, plays as fairly tame compared to the vomit-and-levitation setpieces in The Exorcist. (We’re told that Father Amorth found those gags overdone but otherwise liked the movie.) As Cristina’s boyfriend and members of her large family look on or help restrain her, Father Amorth prays in Latin and commands Satan to be gone as Cristina writes, howls and spews invective in a voice that sounds rather like Mercedes McCambridge as the possessed Regan. The curiosity factor of what a true exorcism looks like is certainly fulfilled, and the behavior seems authentic, though the skeptic could observe it and come to the conclusion that Cristina is simply mentally ill.
That question is addressed in the film’s second half, which comprises the meat of Friedkin’s investigation. Here’s where the movie touches on some intriguing questions, and—at least partially—leaves it up to the audience to make up their minds as to the answers. Friedkin interviews a number of established and highly credentialed neurologists and neurosurgeons, who offer medical and psychological diagnoses of Cristina’s condition, even as the director prods them to admit that science might not necessarily be her savior. One interesting observation, and an avenue that might have been traveled further, is the possibility that the woman’s devout faith fed her own certainty that the devil had infested her. After all, it is noted, many religions have their own stories and cases of people being overtaken by a distinct variety of demons—and if Cristina was of a different faith, she would likely believe the corresponding malignance was responsible.
The subject of the most surprising one-on-one is Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Even with all his religious experience and practice, he admits to Friedkin that he would not take part in an exorcism, as he does not consider himself “spiritually ready” to face the devil one-on-one. Did Satan actually possess Cristina? We can accept or we can doubt, but this interview in particular hammers home the powerful sway he holds over the Catholic experience.
Friedkin is certainly a believer, one whose ’73 film, along with William Peter Blatty’s source novel, arguably did more to popularize the devil than any other work of fiction in history. They essentially introduced exorcism and exorcists into the public consciousness, and to the cottage industry of possession pictures that followed, The Devil and Father Amorth adds a worthwhile window into the realities behind the sometimes exploitative satanic cinema of the last several decades. And its own exorcist is an ingratiating central figure. Father Amorth has a bit of a sense of humor about his work—at the beginning of every exorcism, including the one we see, he literally thumbs his nose at the devil—and at the same time, what’s compelling about him is the seriousness of his devotion to his faith, and to helping others who share it. Whether you believe in the reality of demonic possession or not, there’s no denying Father Amorth’s belief, and as one of Friedkin’s interviewees puts it, “If we don’t understand [something], that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”