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William Friedkin at US premiere of his exorcism documentary 'The Devil and Father Amorth' - April 17 2018 - Moresby Press photo


Director William Friedkin at U.S. premiere of his 2018 exorcism documentary The Devil and Father Amorth. (Moresby Press)



MORESBY PRESS EXCLUSIVE



William Friedkin’s Better Angels



At U.S. premiere of his exorcism documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, talks good, evil, and the lack of answers



By Greg Beaubien

By GREG BEAUBIEN     April 21, 2018


Email: gbeaubien@moresbypress.com


“I BELIEVE IN FATE,” film director William Friedkin says. Perhaps it’s his destiny to be best-known for his 1973 horror classic The Exorcist (and for his Academy Award-winning 1971 crime drama The French Connection), despite directing many other movies—including Sorcerer, Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., Jade, The Hunted, Bug, and Killer Joe—along with TV shows and operas in the years since.

Now, nearly 45 years after making The Exorcist, the story of a girl possessed by the devil, Friedkin has fatefully returned to the subject of demonic possession in his new documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth. Except this time, he says, it’s for real.

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 in Rome performed by Father Gabriele Amorth, the official Vatican exorcist. 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 him. After their first encounter, Friedkin 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 exorcism. “I thought he would immediately say, ‘No, my boy,’” Friedkin would recall at the U.S. premiere of The Devil and Father Amorth, April 17, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Instead, Amorth told him: “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.’”


Exorcism scene from William Friedkin's documentary The Devil and Father Amorth


Father Gabriele Amorth (right) performs an exorcism in William Friedkin’s The Devil and Father Amorth. (The Orchard)


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 watching 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 reportedly seek an exorcism every year (but few are performed). Seeing Christina behave this way becomes increasingly unsettling.

And then, suddenly, she snaps out of it. She opens her eyes and smiles. Her mother and other family members in the room are relieved.


Shadows the Sizes of Cities - sensual thriller novel set in Morocco by Gregory W Beaubien


“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 and more or less retired from filmmaking when he shot the exorcism, 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 demonic possession, 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.


Was this demonic possession, mental illness, or a hoax?


Friedkin, who began his career in live television and then started making documentaries, might have been a reporter if he hadn’t become a director. He is journalistic in his interviews of medical experts such as Dr. Neil Martin, a neurosurgeon and 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.” 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 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 of locations in Georgetown where parts of The Exorcist were shot. But the Georgetown scenes help place the story into context for the director, bookending his making of the 1973 movie.

The film concludes with Friedkin recounting an incident that he did not have the opportunity to film. He tells of traveling 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 the director doesn’t turn over the memory card from his digital camera, on which the exorcism is recorded. Friedkin refuses, but is terrified.

“I haven’t made a dime [on this documentary] and won’t be paid,” he said. “But I thought Christina’s story might help people.”

Father Amorth died Sept. 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.”


‘The films of mine that have lasted—The French Connection and The Exorcist—I approached as a journalist,’ he said.


After debuting at the Venice Film Festival in September 2017, The Devil and Father Amorth had its U.S. premiere at the E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C. 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.

The Devil and Father Amorth, which opens April 20, will be shown only in select theaters across the country, before becoming available on streaming services.

About half an hour before the screening began, Friedkin entered the room wearing gold trousers, gym shoes, a black winter coat, a gold scarf and a brown cap. “Wow, this is small,” he said when he saw the auditorium. Julie Blatty, William Peter Blatty’s widow, sat next to Friedkin. [See sidebar below.]

People straggled in a couple at a time. A few loudly announced that they were in the wrong place. 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 vacant.

If Friedkin was bothered by the low-key turnout and nature of the evening, he didn’t show it. He stood in front 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 that 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 the subject matter of demonic possession. “Of course,” he said.

To the suggestion that he might have been a journalist if he hadn’t become a movie director, Friedkin replied, “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.

“I’m curious,” he said. “But I’m not a skeptic.”

After the question-and-answer session concluded, 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. We had exchanged emails before and he had read my novel, but we had never met in person until that night.

“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 a black SUV and was driven away into the night, over a hill and out of sight.

[Postscript: William Friedkin died Aug. 7, 2023, at the age of 87, three weeks before his 88th birthday.]

~

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Greg Beaubien’s first novel is the critically acclaimed psychological thriller
Shadows the Sizes of Cities

noir thriller novel set in Morocco, Shadows the Sizes of Cities by author Gregory W Beaubien







Director William Friedkin and his friend author William Peter Blatty on set of movie The Exorcist

William Friedkin on his friend and collaborator William Peter Blatty (at right in photo), author of the novel The Exorcist and screenwriter and producer of the 1973 film adaptation:

The movie The Exorcist “was the sole and total creation of William Peter Blatty,” Friedkin said. “I was just the vessel through which it was made.”

Friedkin’s 2018 exorcism documentary The Devil and Father Amorth “is a dedication to William Peter Blatty, who was like a brother to me,” he said. “More than a brother.”

Blatty died Jan. 12, 2017.




Author Gregory W. Beaubien

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