The Austin Chronicle

The Devil and William Friedkin

By Richard Whittaker, January 5, 2019, 9:00am, Picture in Picture

William Friedkin sits back on a couch in the Four Seasons and stares at me. "Possession," he intoned, "is a religious-based disease."

It's funny sometimes how a filmmaker's name can become associated with one movie. Even with a filmography of landmark movies – Sorcerer, The French Connection, Cruising – and a career that has seen him steadily drift away from cinema and increasingly into theatre, Friedkin will always be synonymous with The Exorcist, his chilling and methodical retelling of William Peter Blatty's novel of demonic infestation in Georgetown.

Over four decades later, Friedkin re-enforced that link with another movie about possession, 2017's The Devil and Father Amorth. Yet rather than a work of horror fiction, this was a documentary, a rare public record of one of the Roman Catholic church's most secretive rites, as conducted by the Vatican's leading exorcist.

But to look at these films as a circular theme in his life – or bookends to a career – is to miss the real point. They are mile markers on a map, guided by Friedkin's polymath instincts and creative impulses. An hour in his company, and the topic switches wildly, from 14th-century mystical tract The Cloud of Unknowing to the rise of Hitler, to the reconstruction of Shakespeare's plays for the first folios by John Heminges and Henry Condell, and the fleeting nature of cinema. He said, "I don't go through life as a skeptic. I go through life as someone who's profoundly curious about a great many things, and I try to find out about a great many things."

The Story Everyone Believes

December 26, 1973, The Exorcist is released on 26 screens in the U.S. In all the time since those first screenings it's remained the gold standard for satanic cinema: Often emulated, sometimes imitated, rarely equaled. But it's pure fiction. When it comes to actual exorcisms, Friedkin said, "The film The Exorcist is what people think is involved, and neither Bill Blatty nor myself had ever seen one."

Not that he was really that bothered about accurately catching the ritual. "The Exorcist movie is about the mystery of faith," he said. "It cannot be explained. It's like the mystery of love. You meet someone, you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you. Someone else meets the same person, no effect at all."

His lack of interest in precision was fortunate, because the material available on the subject was limited to say the least. Blatty was inspired to write the original book by a 1949 exorcism in St. Louis, Mo., but when it came to the details he was working in a vacuum, bar exchanging letters with the exorcist, the Rev. William Bowden. "When Blatty wrote his novel," Friedkin continued, "there was almost no literature on the subject at all. There was no fiction that you could rely on, and no non-fiction. [Blatty] spent months working in the Library of Congress, looking for stuff."

The obvious resource, the Roman Catholic Church, was no help at all, either in researching the book or making the film. "They don't talk about it – and rightly so. Because a, it's a very personal matter, and b, it's not the greatest example of human behavior. And often as not, they don't cure it. So they don't want people to know that there're people out there who have been exorcised, and are not, as they call it, liberated."

When it comes to the actual act of exorcism, he said, "There's more bullshit written about it than almost anything I can think of, by people with an axe to grind."

A Quick Trip to Rome

When making The Exorcist, Friedkin filled that information void with Blatty's narrative and his own filmmaking instincts. In 2016, Friedkin replaced fantasy with reality when he was able to sit it on an actual exorcism conducted by Father Gabriele Amorth – co-founder of the International Association of Exorcists and the Vatican's exorcist in chief – an exorcism he caught on camera and released as a documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth.

The documentary happened, he said, "quite by accident – or by providence." Aside from his career in film, he has established a reputation directing opera, most especially productions of Puccini for the Washington National Opera and the L.A. Opera. In 2016, he was invited to the Italian composer's birthplace, Lucca, to be honored for his work. "I had to be there for eight days, and I figured that's a pretty long time to do master classes and interviews and lectures. Somebody casually mentioned that it was a 35-minute drive from Lucca to Pisa, and I wanted to see the tower, which I had never seen and is spectacular – it's an amazing sight and no picture does it justice – and that there was a one hour flight from Pisa to Rome."

He had friends in Rome so he wrote to several of them, including one who is a theologian. "I asked him, I said, 'Look, I'm here for eight days. Do you think it would be possible to meet Father Amorth?' And he said, 'Well, I'll check.' And word came back in a day that he would be happy to meet me." Friedkin then had what he called "a wonderful meeting with this very spiritual man, and then back to Lucca, and then I went home."

That could have been that, if it hadn't been for Graydon Carter, the then-editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair. Friedkin and his wife, legendary studio executive Sherry Lansing, were at the magazine's Oscars party, and the director and the editor were chatting on the terrace, "He asked me, 'Where have you been, where have your travels taken you?' So I tell him, and he says, 'Geez, you've got to write that for Vanity Fair.'"

One problem: Friedkin hadn't take any notes or even recorded the conversation with Amorth. Carter told him, "Go back, and I'll give you as much space as you need." So Friedkin flew back to Rome, met with Amorth again, and produced a 6,500-word article titled "The Devil and Father Amorth: Witnessing 'the Vatican Exorcist' at Work" that eventually ran in December 2016.

Again, that would seem to be that. At the end of the interview, Friedkin asked Amorth if he could be allowed to sit in on an actual exorcism. Of course, he presumed the answer would be a definitive no. "It's not a show," Friedkin said. "It's not ... entertainment, and they don't allow visitors. Family, yes, but they even frown on friends. He said, 'Let me think it over,' and word came back that he would allow me to witness it."

It turned out that Amorth was not only aware of Friedkin's horror classic but actually had an appreciation for it. "He said that while the special effects were over the top, he felt that the film helped people understand his work." Then Friedkin pushed his luck a little more, and wrote to Father Stefano Stimamiglio, Amorth's superior at the Pauline Order, asking whether he could film it: Again, to his surprise, the answer was yes, although under very strict conditions – no crew, no lights. So on at 3pm on May 1, 2016, William Friedkin took a DSLR camera and filmed the exorcism of a woman called Cristina in Venafro, a small village in the mountainous heart of Italy.

The Mind of the Devil

Amorth passed away a few months after the exorcism: not from any satanic intervention, but from heart-related issues at the age of 91. In the documentary, he comes across as serious but puckish. Friedkin called him "the most spiritual person I've ever met," but at the same time "he was a very funny guy. He thumbed his nose at the devil."

When it came to the actual exorcism, he added, "It's like anything else. There's basketball players, and there's Michael Jordan and LeBron James. (Amorth) was in a class by himself."

That's a small class. Earlier this year, at a conference for exorcists held in Sicily, it was estimated that 500,000 requests for exorcism are made every year in Italy alone; however, most requests are rejected. Friedkin estimates that only one in a thousand Roman Catholic priests "have ever seen an exorcism, never mind performed one."

This meant Friedkin was in an unrivaled position to see what few had witnessed before as Amorth performed the ritual on Cristina. "I knew that she would go through a personality and behavioral change. She did – to an extraordinary extent. There's four and sometimes five guys holding her down, and they're sweating. I was two feet away from her, and she had really uncommon strength for a woman her age and size, and a complete alteration of personality, including her voice."

In the documentary, the transformation is like a light switch going on – a far remove from The Exorcist, where Regan's possession is like a worsening infection. "In reality," Friedkin said these are attacks that come on people, like an epileptic fit." Moreover, exorcism is not a simple cure: It's a recurrent treatment, with the ritual he filmed being Cristina's ninth.

Friedkin has a knack for such unusual vantage points. Years prior, he had stood by Dr. Neil Martin, the chief of neurosurgery at the UCLA Medical Center, as he undertook a seven-hour-long brain surgery. After Lucca, he decided he needed to do "something meaningful" with this new footage. So, of course, he went to some of the psychiatrists and leading brain surgeons that he knew, including McNeil and brain mapping expert John C. Mazziotta, to see what they had to say.

Hold up. Priests. Theologians. Brain surgeons. Vanity Fair editors. If this was anyone else, this would seem like pure fantasy. But this is William Friedkin, with his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a willingness to ask until someone says "no." That's how he got to sit in on that brain surgery: He'd been asked to be the guest of honor at the 2013 UCLA Neurosurgery Visionary Ball, and he agreed, on the condition that he got to watch the surgery and talk about it at the ball: "Not talk about myself or the movies, or anything like that. I wanted to tell people what it was like to see a brain surgery at close hand." Like that first meeting with Amorth, he didn't film it. He just wanted to know.

So if The Exorcist is about the mystery of faith, the The Devil and Father Amorth is more like Friedkin's attempt to provide a definitive answer on one issue. That's why he took the footage to doctors like Martin: "Frankly, to see if they would debunk it. To try and get them to debunk it, and explain it in either layman's language, or according to their medical specialties. And they did not debunk it."

The experts he chose didn't simply take an objective view of the evidence but have been willing to probe more nebulous questions of morality: For example, the brain mapping program that Mazziotta heads up has even found an area of the brain called the "kill switch" – the area associated with murder, and what Friedkin referred to as the place where evil lives. Yet even they could not find a clear medical cause.

So what, then, are these possessed people going through? Both The Exorcist and The Devil and Father Amorth explore a Catholic response to the phenomenon of possession – but Friedkin is not Catholic, and does not restrict possession to a Catholic experience. Throughout the documentary he refers to possession as a disease – in part, he explained, because he didn't know what else to call it.

Instead of just demons flinching from holy water, it's a seemingly universal phenomenon that is filtered through cultural lenses (for a cinematic take on that very issue, hunt down Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses, which recounts a death by exorcism in a Maori community). Friedkin said, "Someone who is Jewish or an atheist or a Muslim is not going to go to a priest if he has one of these attacks."

What is seen in Catholicism as demonic possession is seen in Judaism as the actions of a dybbuk, the spirit of a dead person that clings to the living. Before seeing a Catholic exorcism, Friedkin had seen kindred rituals among voodoo practitioners, and the pre-Christian ecstasies of the Yazedi and and the Dervishes while he was shooting The Exorcist in Northern Iraq, "and then there are belief systems like the Anglican church. I couldn't tell you what they account for. The only things I know about them are what I've seen on Ali G."

So strip away the religious aspects. What's happening? According to the medical experts Friedkin consulted for his documentary, it's not physical. "They all said that while everything originates in the brain, it's not a problem of the brain. It's not epilepsy. It's not a lesion in the temporal lobe. It's something else that they felt they couldn't treat."

So is it mental? The conversation turns once again to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (some of those health care professionals he knows helped write the last two volumes) – how diagnoses and syndromes change over time, in part because how we look at symptoms and how they interlock changes. Additionally, there's the difference between cultures (for example, as explored in the 2007 film Does Your Soul Have a Cold, the Japanese concept of depression is profoundly different to that in the West – as American pharmaceutical companies found when they started trying to sell antidepressants in Japan). In the DSM-5, what religious people call possession is classified as dissociative identity disorder – demonic possession. "If someone comes to a psychiatrist and says, 'I think I'm possessed,' they don't say, 'No, you're not possessed, we're going to give you a little therapy and some medication, and we'll take care of it.' They treat the person as though they're possessed, and with an exorcist present."

Even Amorth himself refused to see someone claiming to be possessed until they had seen psychiatrists and surgeons. "They would have to say there was nothing they could do, and often there was a lot they could do. Often it was another form of mental illness, that could be treated or even operate on. But the cases that he took, there was nothing that medical science or psychiatry could do."

According to Friedkin, "[Amorth] did not believe in a corporate devil. He believed that the devil was a metaphor for evil. It was a way of defining evil. It's not a creature in a red suit with horns and a pitch fork, or any other definition that you may have seen of a devil. It is the idea of evil that can manifest itself in almost anyone at any time."

There's a symmetry at play here. Much of the second act of The Exorcist abandons any sheen of religion; instead, it's about doctors trying to explain the experience through science. And even after all Friedkin has seen, he still has no definitive answers. "I've come to the realization that no one knows anything about the eternal truths. People can go to a church or a synagogue of wherever, and hear all these homilies and statements of profound belief, but whether or not you believe it is inherent in your own belief system."

The Devil and Father Amorth is available now on YouTube Movies, GooglePlay, and Netflix.

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