Burn, Witch, Burn
The Pope still loathes Ken Russell's 'The Devils,' and with good reason
By Marc Savlov, 2:25PM, Sun. Sep. 22
Friday's screening of a near-complete cut of the late UK filmmaking provocateur Ken Russell's unspeakably controversial 1971 film The Devils was, as intended, the perfect lead-in to Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.
Both films deal with the soul deadening power of disorganized religion and the deviltry therein, but only Russell's rarely seen spit in the eye of the Papacy features fiery scenes of Vanessa Redgrave playing auto-erotic fiddlesticks with a crucifix and – sadly unseen in this otherwise unscathed cut – Oliver Reed's charred and fractured femur. Call me a classicist, but the horrors of the Inquisition pale in comparison to Russell's jarring, psychotic (and historically accurate) vision of man's earthly appetites colliding and colluding with the ego and libido-fueled insanity of political ambition, love denied and lust fulfilled, and something of an honestly humanistic martyrdom. (Mel Brooks' The Inquisition this is not.)
I'd never seen The Devils on the big screen, and the emotional chasm between watching the dupey, oft-mutilated VHS dubs I've encountered over the years and this 117-minute, near flawless 35mm print is akin the difference in believing in Christ and actually being at Golgotha, poking your finger in that suppurating spear wound. Heresy, possibly, but the moral travesties behind the scenes continue to this day unabated. The Devils, a film banned, reviled, and just as equally revered, remains fresh and salient to the ongoing discussion of latter day theological and political tomfoolery. As ever, the unholy marriage of politics, religion, and humans' basest sexual urges as often as not make for organized – and global – religious divisions, strife, and moral compasses pointing infernally crotchward. Deviant apostasy is with us, always and forever, amen.
Confounding many, Russell's film isn't anti-Christ, but anti-bad governance, from the ultimate top down. In the film based on Aldous Huxley's novel, The Devils of Loudan, Russell, bolstered by bravura, draws hypnotic performances from the entire cast, and delivers the kind of hallucinatory filmmaking that just isn't seen outside of the likes of Fantastic Fest, Sitges, and the like. Reed is the very picture of a prideful man of the cross, Urbain Grandier, undone by the flesh and the political and religious machinations of Cardinal Richelieu (a queasy performance from Christopher Logue), Louis XIII (Graham Armitrage), and a lustful, mad hunchbacked nun, Sister Jeanne (Redgrave, utterly unhinged).
To say that The Devils may not be to everyone's taste is an understatement of diabolic proportions. But its message – beware of false prophets and false profits, both here and in any kind of afterlife – is every bit as relevant, and unsettling, today as it was in the 17th or 20th centuries. It's a masterpiece in every sense of the word: hellishly good cinema with a surplus of raging ideas, beauty, horrors.