Father Gabriele Amorth, right, performs an exorcism. (The Orchard photo)
William Friedkin’s Better Angels
At U.S. Premiere of His New Documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, the Renowned Director of The Exorcist Talks Good, Evil, and the Lack of Answers
By GREG BEAUBIEN April 21, 2018
“I BELIEVE IN FATE,” director William Friedkin says. Perhaps it’s his fate to be best-known for his 1973 horror classic The Exorcist (and for his 1971 crime drama The French Connection, two films that have largely defined his career), despite having directed a long list of other movies—including Sorcerer, Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., Jade, The Hunted, Bug, and Killer Joe—television programs and operas in the years since. Most of his work deals with moral ambiguity and the thin line between good and evil.
Nearly 45 years after making The Exorcist, Friedkin has returned to the subject of demonic possession in his new documentary The Devil and Father Amorth. Only this time, it’s not fiction.
A short film with a running time of only 68 minutes, The Devil and Father Amorth emerged from a chance opportunity the director had in 2016 to film an actual exorcism performed in Rome by Father Gabriele Amorth, the official Vatican exorcist. Ordinarily, filming an exorcism would not be allowed. In April of that year Friedkin was in Lucca, Italy to receive the Puccini Prize for his work directing operas. On impulse he emailed a religious scholar he knew and asked whether Father Amorth would meet with him. Amorth, who was 90 years old at the time, had written a book decades earlier called An Exorcist Tells His Story, in which he cites Friedkin’s The Exorcist as his favorite movie, but calls its special effects “a bit over the top.”
Amorth agreed to meet the director. After their first meeting, Friedkin later returned to Rome to interview Amorth at length for an article in Vanity Fair magazine. He asked if Amorth would ever consider allowing him to witness an actual exorcism. “I thought he would immediately say, ‘No, my boy,’” Friedkin later recalled. Instead, Amorth said: “Let me think about it.” A couple of days later, Friedkin received word through an intermediary that Father Amorth would allow him to witness the ritual on May 1, 2016. “So I pushed my luck and said, ‘Do you think you would allow me to film it?’ thinking the answer would be no. But they wrote back and said, ‘You can film this, but only alone, with no crew, and no lights.’”
In the documentary, Friedkin brings a Sony still camera that also shoots high-definition video, to film Amorth’s ninth exorcism of an Italian woman in her late 30s named Christina. An architect, she has been forced to stop working because of bizarre changes to her personality and behavior, which reportedly become most severe on Christian holidays. Unlike in Friedkin’s fictional 1973 film—which was based on author William Peter Blatty’s novel, in which a possessed twelve-year-old girl is freed from the evil spirit during one grueling exorcism—Christina has periods of normal behavior and sees Father Amorth periodically, as if visiting a psychiatrist for therapy sessions.
In a small room crowded with her relatives who sit looking on and praying, Christina is held down in a chair by two burly priests while Father Amorth attempts to liberate her from what he believes is a rare and genuine case of demonic possession. Amorth, who turns 91 on the day of Christina’s ninth and final exorcism with him, begins the ritual by thumbing his nose at the devil.
Christina falls into a trance state, nodding her head repeatedly, her eyes closed, grimacing and thrashing. “STOP!” she growls in Latin. “SHE IS MINE! SHE BELONGS TO ME!”
When Father Amorth commands the demon to leave her, the voice emitting from Christina bellows “NO! NEVER! GET AWAY FROM HER! I AM SATAN!”
Father Amorth says, “The Virgin Mary will destroy you, Satan!”
“IT’S YOU WHO ARE DAMNED!” the voice replies. “WE ARE LEGION! WE ARE ARMIES!”
At first it seems like we’re watching an act or the ravings of a mentally disturbed person, perhaps a manifestation of cultural superstition in a country where half a million people seek an exorcism every year. But after a while, seeing Christina behave this way becomes more and more disturbing, and it’s no longer so easy to dismiss the claim that she’s possessed.
And then, suddenly, she snaps out of it and opens her eyes, smiling. Her mother and other family members in the room are relieved.
“The devil’s assaults can be brief,” Amorth says. But “they cause constant physical and mental suffering. The nervous system remembers.”
Friedkin, who was 80 years old when he shot the exorcism and more or less retired from filmmaking, did not set out to turn the footage into a documentary. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” he said later. A naturally curious man who has spent a lifetime surrounding himself with interesting people, Friedkin decided to pursue the story of Christina and Father Amorth further. The root of Friedkin’s inquest, and that of his film, is whether this was actual demonic possession, some sort of mental illness, or just a hoax. He shows the footage to some prominent physicians, to give them the chance to debunk it. To his surprise, they don’t—at least not fully.
Friedkin might have been a reporter if he hadn’t become a filmmaker. He is journalistic in his interviews of medical experts such as Dr. Neil Martin, a neurosurgeon and the chief of neurosurgery at UCLA Medical Center. Martin says that Christina’s condition could be delirium, but that her “powerful, guttural voice seems to come from somewhere else.” Martin has performed thousands of surgeries on a variety of brain injuries and maladies, but from a multitude of disorders “I haven’t seen this kind of consequence before,” he says.
In the documentary, Friedkin also interviews a group of eminent psychiatrists at Columbia University in New York. After viewing the tape of Christina’s exorcism, one of the doctors describes her condition as “Dissociative Trance and Possession Disorder.” Still, the experts seem determined to explain her condition away, suggesting that her religious upbringing causes her to believe in possession.
Friedkin also interviews a man who has written widely on the subject of demons. Does he worry that through his study of the subject he’ll expose himself to the threat of possession, Friedkin asks? “The more you open yourself to thinking about this stuff,” the man says, “and then you start feeling about this stuff, the more room you allow for the supernatural power to come in.”
By necessity, the footage of the exorcism has a raw, unpolished quality, which heightens its realism. The film has “no special effects, no tinkering, no trickery,” Friedkin said. “This is what I saw; this is what I filmed. It’s not an entertainment and not meant to be an entertainment.” (He did add some dramatic violin trills on the soundtrack, however.)
Because the exorcism sequence lasts only about fifteen minutes, with perhaps another twenty minutes of interviews, critics have accused Friedkin of padding the film with an opening sequence in which he shows locations in Georgetown where The Exorcist was shot. As is so often the case, the naysayers have it wrong. The Georgetown scenes help place the story into context for the filmmaker, in what is obviously a very personal project for him, one that bookends a major achievement and experience in his life, his making of the 1973 film. I found The Devil and Father Amorth to be fascinating, powerful and thought-provoking, the work of a man with a brilliant mind.
“I haven’t made a dime [on this movie] and won’t be paid,” Friedkin said. “But I thought Christina’s story might help people.”
The film concludes with him recounting an incident he did not have the opportunity to film. He travels to the town of Alatri, Italy, a two-hour drive from Rome, to meet with Christina and interview her again. During the meeting, which takes place in a small church, Christina displays her most disturbing behavior yet—growling, screaming and sliding around on the floor. Her boyfriend, a member of a dangerous cult, threatens to murder Friedkin and his family if he doesn’t turn over the memory card from his digital camera, on which the exorcism is recorded. Friedkin refuses, but is terrified.
Father Amorth died on September 16, 2016, just a few months after Friedkin filmed Christina’s final exorcism with him. Friedkin was devastated to lose “the most spiritual man I ever met.”
William Friedkin at the April 17, 2018 U.S. premiere of The Devil and Father Amorth.
(Moresby Press photo)
After debuting at the Venice Film Festival in September of 2017, The Devil and Father Amorth had its U.S. premiere at the E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C., on April 17. Held on a Tuesday night, this was no glamorous, star-studded, red-carpet affair. In fact, the premiere took place in a tiny, 100-seat auditorium at the end of a long corridor in a multiplex, as other, more mainstream movies played in the larger rooms. (A line of people in the lobby before the 7:00 p.m. screening of Father Amorth turned out to be waiting to see The Rider.) Tickets to Friedkin’s premiere were given away free over Twitter. You just had to RSVP to an email address.
In fact, The Devil and Father Amorth, which opened yesterday, April 20, is being shown only in “select theaters” across the country. Chicago—Friedkin’s hometown and mine, and where I live a few blocks away from his childhood apartment—is not included, at least not in the film’s first wave of distribution. The documentary will have a worldwide digital release on April 24.
About half an hour before the screening began, I was seated in the VIP section waiting, when I heard Friedkin’s distinctive voice and turned to see him entering the room. He wore gold trousers, gym shoes, a black sweater, a quilted black winter coat, a gold scarf around his neck and a soft brown cap on his head. “Wow, this is small,” he said when he saw the room. I took a seat next to him but was asked by his handler to move one seat over, so that Julie Blatty, William Peter Blatty’s widow, could sit at Friedkin’s side.
People straggled in a few at a time. A few loudly announced that they were in the wrong room; they were looking for The Rider. Ten minutes before the premiere was to begin, the little auditorium remained half empty. It filled up more by the time the event started, but some seats stayed empty. I could not understand why. I thought Friedkin deserved far better. My alarm clock had gone off at four o’clock that morning so that I could get ready, drive to O’Hare Airport, make a 7:00 a.m. flight to Detroit, and then run for a connection to Baltimore. From there I took a shuttle and then an Amtrak train to Union Station in Washington, D.C., and then a taxi to a hotel down the street from the theater, so that I could be there to support my friend Billy Friedkin at his premiere.
If he was bothered by the low-key turnout and nature of the evening, he didn’t show it. Friedkin stood before the audience to introduce the film, and after the screening concluded the 82-year-old spent an hour on his feet engaging in a question-and-answer session with the audience.
“My own belief is that there are deeper dimensions to the universe,” he said, “and if there are demons, there must be angels. But no one has any definitive answers. I believe that what I saw was an exorcism, because I believed in Father Amorth.” Friedkin admitted he faces a constant struggle to exhibit his better angels. “There’s good and evil in everyone,” he said. He is Jewish and agnostic, but said he strongly believes in the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Turning around one of his own questions from the documentary, I asked whether he worried about exposing himself too much to this subject matter. “Of course,” he said. To my suggestion that the film shows he might have been a journalist if he hadn’t become a filmmaker, Friedkin replied, “I’m curious, but I’m not a skeptic. The films of mine that have lasted—The French Connection and The Exorcist—I approached as a journalist,” since they were based on actual cases. (The first films that he directed, The People vs. Paul Crump and The Thin Blue Line, were TV documentaries.)
According to his reporting in the film, half a million people in Italy seek exorcisms every year, but few of the rituals are performed. Why Italy in particular? Friedkin surmised it’s because the country is the seat of the Vatican and the Holy Catholic Church.
Greg Beaubien at the base of the “Exorcist Steps” in Georgetown. (Moresby Press photo)
My own experience with William Friedkin began in late May of 2016, just a few weeks after he had filmed Christina’s exorcism in Rome. While Friedkin was reaching out to Father Amorth, I was reaching out to Friedkin. Although I grew up on his movies—I was eight years old when my parents took me to see The French Connection in 1971—I didn’t make professional contact with him until I sent him a copy of my 2014 novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities, a noir thriller that takes place in Spain, Morocco, Amsterdam and Chicago, and is influenced in some scenes by Friedkin’s films.
My story with Friedkin would take a circuitous route of missed connections, but reach a happy denouement, nonetheless. On Memorial Day weekend 2016, I received an email response from him, in which he asked me to send a copy of my book to his home in the Beverly Hills section of Los Angeles. I did so without delay, but when I checked the U.S. Postal Service’s online tracker a few days later, I could see that something was wrong. In the morning the tracker would indicate that the package was out for delivery, but then in the evening it would say the package was being returned to the post office. This went on for several days, to my consternation and bewilderment.
Finally I realized that in his email Billy had inadvertently repeated the last two digits of his street address for the last two digits of his ZIP code, and the package would remain in limbo as a result, never to be delivered. I didn’t want to embarrass him by pointing out his mistake and asking him for his street address again. After locating the accurate address in an online real estate listing, I signed another copy of the book and inscribed it to him, printed a new letter to go with it, and this time sent the package via priority overnight delivery by Federal Express—a $60 option that was probably unnecessary, especially since Billy might still have been out of the country at the time.
Friedkin has a reputation for being difficult, and tales of his arrogant, overbearing and cruel behavior during his heyday are legendary. But to me he has only been a gentleman, deepening my admiration and loyalty for him. A couple of weeks after I sent him the second package, I received an email from Billy that said: “The book arrived. I will get to it when I can but busy now.” I was impressed. Friends and colleagues who I’ve known for decades wouldn’t bother to acknowledge receiving a package—but Billy Friedkin, someone who was little more than a stranger to me then, and a celebrity movie director famous for his hot temper, had the courtesy not to leave me hanging.
At the time, I didn’t know what he was busy working on, but it would turn out to be his film The Devil and Father Amorth. A year passed with no word from him. I tried emailing a few times, afraid that I’d seem like a pest, but he didn’t respond. I began to conclude that he disliked the book and wanted me to stop bothering him.
Finally, at 11:30 p.m. on the Fourth of July, 2017, I received an email from Billy that said: “Dear Greg... I’ve just finished my documentary, so I will start your book this weekend. Look forward to it… All best, Billy.”
I was happy. The novel is 240 pages long and a fast read, and after a week I started to wonder if he’d finished it yet. July turned into August, and then September came, and still no word from Friedkin. Did he hate my book?
A couple days after Labor Day, I emailed him again and asked whether he’d had the chance to read my novel. The next day he responded: “Dear Greg... I sent you an email some time ago telling you how much I loved the book. Billy.”
As with the copy of the novel that I had mailed to the wrong ZIP code, Billy sent me an email that for some reason never arrived. I wondered what else he might have said in that phantom message, but he never told me. I was hoping he might option the book and turn it into a movie, and over the next few months I asked him three times if we could meet in Los Angeles—to talk about the book, his movies, Chicago, etc. But each time he politely declined, saying his travel schedule was too jammed for him to commit to a date.
The last email I received from him was on Halloween 2017. I tried contacting him a few times afterwards but received no responses. I figured he was busy preparing for the release of his new documentary. I didn’t want to bug him. But maybe I wound up doing just that.
When I heard The Devil and Father Amorth would premiere in Washington, D.C. on April 17, and that Friedkin would be there, I asked the distributor, The Orchard, if they would reserve a seat for me. They agreed. I bought an airline ticket and booked a hotel.
When I introduced myself to Billy before the screening, he looked at me and said “Oh, how ya doin’?” But then he walked away toward his seat. I wasn’t sure if he remembered me. He seemed nervous and preoccupied, as anyone whose film is about to premiere would be. When he later referred to me by my first name, I knew he remembered our correspondence.
After the screening and Q&A, a knot of fans approached Friedkin and he patiently signed autographs and posed for pictures. When nearly everyone else had left, he and I stood outside the theater and talked a bit while he waited for his ride.
“It was great to finally meet you, Billy,” I said.
“You too, Greg,” he said. “Good luck to you.”
And then he climbed into the passenger seat of an SUV and was driven away into the night, over a hill and out of sight.