William Friedkin, the maker of The Exorcist, the 1973 classic movie, had never seen an exorcism. Almost half a century later, and with curiosity still biting him, he found himself in Lucca, the Tuscan city where he received the Paganini prize for music in April 2016. He was told that Pisa was a half-hour drive away. As he wanted to see the leaning tower, he went for it. And then they told him that Rome was just a one-hour flight from Pisa. On an impulse, Friedkin wrote to a theologian friend in Rome, who arranged a meeting with Fr. Gabriele Amorth, chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome and beloved priest.
In response to a question from the public in the Q&A session afterwards, Friedkin (in the picture next to his wife) admitted that his most celebrated movie would not exist, or not as it is now. “If I had met Fr. Amorth first, I would not have made The Exorcist.” There were gasps coming from the audience. “Not the way I made it,” he added following a moment of silence.
The result of his encounters with the Roman exorcist was a documentary on exorcism, including footage of an actual one: The Devil and Father Amorth. With deadpan humor, Friedkin lamented last night that journalists got the privilege of seeing first his documentary, that premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. The baffled response he received from the media had obviously stung him.
“They always make journalists watch the movie first,” Friedkin said. “There are now five thousand newspapers in the world that call me a schmuck for making this movie.
Friedkin’s sarcasm may be justified. Fewer professionals in the world can be as jaded and cynical as reporters. And surely, the sight of an elderly priest mumbling Latin prayers to an unrestrained woman screaming “I am Satan!” would be too tempting for the cruelest practitioners of this trade to pass up. So surely, newsmen around the globe have been pouring gallons of acid ink on the man who created a cult movie almost half a century ago.
The documentary is watchable. Friedkin knows his trade. We follow him as he interviews a woman who was successfully exorcised and Fr. Amorth, who in his youth during World War Two fought in the Italian resistance against fascism and later found his vocation in the church. And then we see the ninth exorcism of Cristina, a beautiful Italian architect who lives in a lovely small town near Rome, who we were told was still possessed by the devil. “We are legions!” she (or the demons) screams in a voice that comes from deep down a very disturbed soul.
Or so it seems on the screen. Seeing her being restrained by four men and howling as she does, you can believe that Italian police —not faint of heart, as they fight mafia bosses— refused once to enter the home of a possessed woman, hearing her from the outside. As it happens, Fr. Amorth, passed away shortly after Friedkin made his documentary and before practicing his tenth exorcism of Cristina, who was still possessed at the time.
Skeptics (including the almost entire universe of journalists: call it a professional bias) will see plenty in the movie to scoff at it and make fun of almost everything. And indeed, Friedkin —who calls himself an agnostic— comes across as a bit credulous. You would expect him to push harder for answers and to delve deeper. Perhaps aware of that, he showed his video of the exorcism to a group of leading psychiatrists in the United States: Jeffrey Lieberman, director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute; Michael B. First, professor of clinical psychiatry; Roberto Lewis-Fernández, president-elect of the World Association of Cultural Psychiatry; and Ryan Lawrence, M.D., assistant professor of clinical psychiatry.
For all his attempts at making a documentary based on facts, the aura of the The Exorcist followed Friedkin. One of the researchers he showed his footing of the actual exorcism had doubts. “There is no head spinning, no levitation,” the psychiatrist said. “Doctor, we made that up! It was just a movie!” responded Friedkin.