[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on September 21.]
This isn’t a great documentary. In some ways (down to the design of the credits and titles) it is simply playing on the success and popularity of The Exorcist—though there’s no pea soup, no unnaturally turning heads, and no priests die. (And my wife thinks William Friedkin sounds like Donald Trump. Narrator: he does.)
So while there are a few and minor interesting things in this film, the questions it raises are more interesting to me. What is it that continues to fascinate about exorcism? Why do people continue to make movies dealing with exorcism? I count at least 25 films focusing on possession or exorcism since 2000 (most of which—to placate my critics—I have never seen). Why so many, and why is this a recurring theme?
Some of the answer might have to do with the line between good and evil and the attempt to walk that line. It has to be more than simply that demons and the devil make for scary movies. Maybe it’s the vestiges of a religion-haunted country. When actual religious observance declines, people become fascinated with whatever they think might have made up such observance. (E.g., projecting stained glass windows on the walls of a warehouse church; using candles and incense in some “ancient-modern” emergent church [I know, probably not a thing anymore]; or anything else a la the Book of Judges or A Canticle for Leibowitz.) This is, as far as I can tell, the only reason for Kurt Sutter’s use of bread and wine on the kitchen counter before Jax Teller sacrifices himself to a semi-truck in Sons of Anarchy. It seems to evoke something, but what? He doesn’t seem to be quite sure.
The Devil and Father Amorth, for the most part, doesn’t stray into the sensational or the exploitative. I think Friedkin really does want to examine the phenomenon of exorcism from the perspective of Rome’s chief exorcist. This is evident in the fact that he spends a significant part of the film on the exorcism itself without commentary. He simply lets Fr. Amorth do his thing and records it.
It is interesting to watch it from the perspective of a Lutheran. Fr. Amorth’s exorcisms (it seems he always performs multiple exorcisms; the one in the film is the ninth on the woman) seem to owe a lot more to his own practices than to the Roman Ritual. Re-watching The Exorcism, Fr. Merrin and Fr. Karras follow the Ritual mostly to the letter, which is, I believe, what exorcists are supposed to do. I didn’t suppose that going off-script would be recommended when dealing with the Prince of Darkness.
But Fr. Amorth’s prayers included rosaries, prayers to the saints, and additional elements that don’t seem to be directly related to the Ritual. In terms of exorcism films, The Exorcist is conspicuous in that there are no rosaries or Hail Marys. There is only holy water and a crucifix. Otherwise, the prayers are all directed to the Trinity, and there is the infamous line, repeated 14 times: “The power of Christ compels you!” This would seem to follow Jude’s line of thinking that even Michael doesn’t presume to engage Satan directly, but says, “The Lord rebuke you” (Jude 9).
Fr. Amorth apparently began his exorcisms by thumbing his nose at the devil, which Luther would also recognize as valid: that the devil can’t stand mockery, hence Luther’s repeated scatalogical references to Satan. And yet, this raises the question of demonic power and the seriousness of exorcism. Obviously, this is a documentary, while The Exorcist is a Hollywood film. But there are all sorts of cautions given to and by exorcists (as I recall), that do not seem to take place in The Devil and Father Amorth.
I fully believe that demonic oppression and possession are possible. But it is also true that non-supernatural causes for behavior are supposed to be ruled out before exorcism happens. This is something that The Exorcist, for all the over-the-top special effects, does very well. Fr. Karras, in the spirit of the times, says no one has heard of possession since the fourteenth century. He has his own spiritual doubts, but he’s thoroughly modern in his thinking about the supernatural: that the sorts of things we read about in the Scriptures would have purely rational explanations today.
And so Chris MacNeil goes through neurological and other medical tests (one of which was apparently the real cause of people fainting in the screenings), she’s asked about drug use, and there is psychiatric care. When these things are exhausted, Chris—at the literal end of her rope—finally seeks out spiritual care. This seems particularly realistic, not only in the ’70s, but now as well.
Further, although the movie doesn’t spend a lot of time on this, it’s clear from the novel and from the stories about the real exorcism on which William Peter Blatty based his novel that the subject of the exorcism (a boy, rather than a girl as in the movie) had been involved in the practices of Spiritualism by his aunt. In the movie, there is only a brief scene with a Ouija board, but in the real account, there were extensive attempts to communicate with spirits.
This is, from the Christian perspective, the very serious danger that comes from attempting—even for fun—to interact with some sort of supernatural realm. That is, apparently harmless “fun” can open up a person to malevolent spirits. Fr. Merrin in The Exorcist makes clear that there is nothing fun about dealing with this spirit. The devil is a liar, he tells Fr. Karras. Perhaps, then, he disguises himself as these harmless spirits in order to seal his influence over individuals. The recent Spanish film Veronica suggests that the Ouija board is indeed the opening to dealing with evil spirits. And in the—to me—far scarier film than The Exorcist, Hereditary, it is a series of experiences with mediums that open up the horrible, unnatural history of the family. The most terrifying thing about Hereditary is that, unlike in The Exorcist, there is no God, no Christ, no ritual that can save the family. Once in, they’re all the way in, and there’s no way out.
So while The Devil and Father Amorth isn’t a great documentary, and not even very good religiously from a Lutheran perspective, it—and even more so, The Exorcist—does point to the very real terror of the demonic rather than using it as some cheap scare tactic. It does the opposite of what C. S. Lewis suggests in The Screwtape Letters that the devil would like to do: to present himself as a caricature of evil, in red tights and horns and a forked tail. There’s nothing scary about that. The true devil and his actual demons, however, are another story altogether. In an age where we abstract evil to the point of meaninglessness, films like this can remind us that evil is very specific and more horrific than our scientifically distancing rationality might suggest.