Reverend Amorth, who died in 2016 not long after Friedkin made this movie, was reported to have performed more than 160,000 exorcisms over his career. Near the end of his life, he allowed Friedkin to record him performing one on an Italian woman named Cristina, her ninth exorcism overall. Mixed in with that footage is Friedkin waxing lyrical about the ritual itself and the power of belief. He notes that some 500,000 Italians have undergone exorcisms, and consults with psychiatrists who argue that there is a subconscious, performative act to the ceremony on both sides.
The footage Friedkin captures is undeniably fascinating. This isn’t the dark, chilly, atmospherically lit bedroom of The Exorcist, where Fathers Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Damien Karras (Jason Miller) confront the demon occupying young Regan MacNeil’s (Linda Blair) body. Cristina is sitting in an office in the daytime, next to Reverend Amorth and surrounded by dozens of family members. The furniture doesn’t shake, and Cristina’s head doesn’t revolve 360 degrees, but as Amorth prays to her in Latin, she does scream at him and thrash in her chair, her voice taking on an unnatural, guttural tone.
Friedkin himself seems convinced—by Cristina’s behavior, by Amorth’s pious conviction—but he does take the footage to disbelieving experts who deconstruct it, noting that Cristina’s own deep belief in the ritual might cause her to enter a sort of trance state. Still, The Devil and Father Amorth has neither the time nor, judging from the production values, the resources to really dig into the details on either side. The documentary’s most revealing scene comes in a conversation with Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, who tells Friedkin he himself would be too afraid to perform an exorcism, considering himself not learned and holy enough for the task.
In Barron’s words, demonic possession is delicate theological territory to walk on. But in making The Exorcist and now filming this documentary, Friedkin charged right onto that holy ground, turning it into something thrilling. The footage from The Devil and Father Amorth of Cristina’s exorcism is so peculiar, particularly the voice she screams in, that it’s hard not to wonder if Friedkin altered the sound in postproduction to intensify the experience. But he’s not tipping his cap, making no mention of it either way. Later in the movie, he dramatizes an (unfilmed) meeting with Cristina that turned sour, shooting an empty church in ridiculously over-the-top fashion and describing their angry confrontation in voice-over.
But, as a filmmaker, Friedkin has long possessed the ability to blend heightened pulp with a hint of realism. It’s what made his Best Picture winner The French Connection such an unusual proposition in 1971; he had folded an international-conspiracy thriller about a European heroin ring into a story about a flea-bitten, take-no-prisoners New York cop. The Exorcist novelist and screenwriter, William Peter Blatty, pushed for Friedkin’s hiring, and The French Connection convinced the studio to bring him aboard.