Circuitous route led to director's second film on exorcism

IMAGE: CNS photo/The Orchard

By Mark Pattison

(CNS) — Sometimes the best opportunities result from a mix of asking and
having things fall into your lap.

So it
was for William Friedkin, who directed “The Exorcist” 45 years ago and thought
he was through with the subgenre he helped create. Then came his documentary on
exorcism, “The Devil and Father Amorth.”

“It was
a complete accident,” Friedkin told Catholic News Service in an April 16
interview in Washington to promote the film. “I had no intention of doing this.
I had no interest. ‘The Exorcist’ was a work of fiction. I had never seen a
real exorcism, and neither had William Peter Blatty,” who had written the novel
on which that movie was based.

said he had been in Luca, Italy, to receive the Puccini Prize for having
directed four Puccini operas. He soon heard Pisa was a 35-minute drive from
Luca, so he made the trip. Then he learned it was a one-hour flight from Pisa to
Rome. Given that he had eight days in Italy, he wrote a priest-theologian friend,
and “as a lark, I asked, ‘Do you think I could get a meeting with the pope or
Father (Gabriele) Amorth?'”

reply: “The pope’s not available, but Father Amorth would be very pleased to
meet you.” The desired meeting took place between Friedkin and the priest whose
skills in performing exorcisms he characterized this way: “There’s exorcists
and there’s exorcists, like there’s basketball players and LeBron James.”

returned to Los Angeles and was at the Vanity Fair magazine post-Oscars party
when he told then-editor Graydon Carter of his meeting with the priest. Carter
urged him to write an article about Father Amorth. Before making a return trip
to Rome he wrote the priest, who answered only in longhand. “I pushed my luck,”
Friedkin said. “Would you ever let me witness an exorcism?” “Let me think about
it,” Father Amorth said; eventually, his order, the Pauline Fathers, gave
permission for him to see an exorcism on a specific date — May 1, 2016.

pushed my luck again, and I wrote back, ‘Do you think he would allow me to film
it?’ The word came back in two days, that yes, he would allow me to film it,
but alone with no crew and no lights,” Friedkin said.

filming of Cristina, the first known filmed exorcism, is what makes up the core
of “The Devil and Father Amorth.” “I had been told by Father Amorth this was
her ninth exorcism and she had experienced personality changes, vocal changes,
and a kind of unnatural strength for a woman her size and age,” he recalled. “So I
was aware from him this was going to happen — to what extent, I didn’t know.”

He said
he was surprised by how “disturbing the (demonic) attacks were. I went from
abject terror sitting two feet away from her to absolute empathy for the pain
she was expressing. She’s a wonderful woman. She’s an architect. You wonder how
these attacks came about, why.”

Amorth, who was 91, died several months after the filming. The priest was chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome from 1986
until his death in 2016. Cristina continues
to seek help to cast out whatever demon is inside her with the help of other

The movie also shows Friedkin talking with neurosurgeons and
psychiatrists who have seen his exorcism footage who seem at a loss to either
debunk or explain it.

attention to Father Amorth “would have helped to offset the inevitable grimness
of the rite at the heart of the proceedings,” said John Mulderig, CNS assistant
director for media reviews, in his review of “The Devil and Father Amorth.” “At
times, Friedkin appears slightly breathless with enthusiasm for his own
material, and Christopher Rouse’s churning score also hints at sensationalism.
But overall, the tone is respectful and sober-minded.”

film is classified A-II — adults and adolescents — for mature themes,
potentially disturbing images and a rude gesture.

Amorth said to me the devil is metaphor,” Friedkin told CNS. “The devil is not
some figurative person, although he did say that he has had conversations with
Satan. But he said there is no figure as he’s been depicted. He believes that
the devil is metaphor. I 100 percent believe there is evil in the world —
every day, all day, constantly — but there is also a great goodness.”

who was raised Jewish, now embraces faith in a different way.

he is not a Catholic, “I strongly believe in the teachings of Jesus — strongly
believe in the teachings of Jesus — and I don’t necessarily require the
supernatural to believe in Jesus,” he said, referring to the Resurrection.

said his aims with the documentary are modest. “Just a sharing of information,
which is what any filmmaker — especially if you make a documentary — experience.
‘Here. this is what I saw,'” he said. “And what I’m saying to the audience, “Make
of this what you will, but here it is.’ We live in a very skeptical world, so
I expect a lot of that.”

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

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