'The Devil and Father Amorth' Review: New Documentary from 'The Exorcist' Director Isn't as Fun as Pea Soup Vomit

In William Friedkin's new documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth, the late William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist and its film adaptation, describes originally wanting to write a nonfiction account of a 1949 exorcism as a wakeup call, or "reaffirmation of faith." Demons are real, so what are you waiting for? Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, The French Connection, To Live and Die in LA and Sorcerer, doesn't have the same ambition; he neither proselytizes or debunks.

Here Friedkin is working more in the style of documentaries about Bible codes and ancient aliens. There's ominous music, dutch tilts of gargoyle statues and, best of all, Friedkin along as narrator and guide. The Devil and Father Amorth is most fun when Friedkin is onscreen, walking slowly toward camera, maybe narrating a guided tour around the Georgetown neighborhood where The Exorcist was made, or standing in front of the house where the boy who inspired Blatty's novel was first possessed by the devil. Avuncular and probing, Friedkin's Leonard Nimoy act adds a much-needed layer of personality to The Devil and Father Amorth.

The Devil and Father Amorth opens in Italy, where even today 500,000 people see an exorcist every year. Friedkin obtains permission from Gabriele Amorth, a Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Rome and a famous exorcist, to take video of Amorth's ninth attempt at exorcising a woman named Cristina. But while it's clear Friedkin felt something powerful in the room during Cristina's exorcism, presented in 17 unbroken minutes at the center of the documentary, it doesn't translate well to screen. The Devil and Father Amorth doesn't have much of the devil or, surprisingly, much of Father Amorth, whose storied spiritual power is never convincingly depicted or explored.

There was undoubtedly horrific stress, hope and powerful displays of faith in Father Amorth's attempted exorcism of Cristina, but cinematically it looks like a woman held to a chair, without much difficulty, occasionally belting out a guttural, "We Are Legion!" in Latin, as if the demons never had to figure out new lines after exorcism movies spoiled the good ones. Even Christina's loved ones in the room look bored, maybe slightly irritated. After the ceremony is complete, Christina relapses; the exorcism didn't work. But it doesn't seem to mattereveryone present does their best to ignore her and move on to Amorth's benediction, even wishing him a happy birthday as Cristina growls in the background.

In the absence of probing insight into Amorth or the meaning he found in exorcism, The Devil and Father Amorth instead relies heavily on the imposing architecture of the Roman Catholic Church, including the striking Scala Sancta, claimed to be the stairs Jesus climbed to Pontius Pilate. Had the devil possessed a Texas megachurch parishioner instead of an Italian Catholic, the exorcism would slot right alongside evangelical claptrap like snake handlers, tongues speakers and rogue Baptist churches. Strip away the cultural trappings surrounding Cristina, and the evidentiary content of The Devil and Father Amorth starts to feel like an unintentional story of faith gone awry, as if Friedkin made a Jesus Camp sequel by accident.

After the actual footage, Friedkin gets comment first from neurologists, who see no neurological reason for demon possession, then from psychologists, who associate exorcism with Dissociative Trance Disorder. Needless to say, the Columbia University Psychology faculty don't believe people are being possessed by spirits or demons from outside their mind, instead describing it narrowly as a culturally contextual ceremony with potential therapeutic benefits.

Though The Devil and Father Amorth sticks to "draw your own conclusions" narration, Friedkin isn't exactly subtle about nudging us toward the supernatural ones. "It was a revelation to me," he says, after listening to psychologists very cautiously endorse a narrow use for exorcism. "The psychiatric diagnosis of Cristina's condition is recognized around the world as demonic possession."

Well, technically, sure, there's a complex of symptoms defining a psychiatric condition. But the narrow, explicitly non-supernatural confines the doctors would place on it seem to bore Friedkin. Having validated the spiritual with the scientific, Friedkin, reinvigorated, returns to spiritual explanations. The Devil and Father Amorth starts to feel slippery, as Friedkin uses the sliver offered by psychologists and neurologists as a pry bar to crack open space for the supernaturalnot necessarily because he believes in it, but because it's more interesting.

The Devil and Father Amorth is also available on DVD and streaming on demand.