Director: Federica Di Giacomo
Script: Federica Di Giacomo, Andrea Zvetkov Sanguigni
Duration: 94 mins
Exorcism has always inspired both terror and intrigue. It conjures up visions of tormented medieval priests, of children shrieking and howling, of ancient, chaotic evil lurking beneath human flesh. It’s not generally thought to be a problem of the modern world, let alone an increasingly common one. In Deliver Us, Federica Di Giacomo shows us the everyday reality of exorcist Father Cataldo, as well as the journeys of some of his possessed congregation members in their search for deliverance. However, the film never moves beyond simply presenting a series of events, and the lack of any opinion, narrative, or deeper exploration makes this fly-on-the-wall account fall flat.
The first half hour, as we’re introduced to the main players, is the film’s strongest. The first footage of an exorcism, in which a kneeling figure writhes and screams under Cataldo’s hand, is genuinely disturbing, and all the more so for the simplicity of the single shot and purely diagetic sound. As the scene is set, we are introduced to the huge number of people who have come to Father Cataldo for help. Some of their problems appear less than supernatural; a family has an unruly son, a woman fears her husband is unfaithful, a man feels that everything goes wrong for him. But once we hit the “Mass of Liberation”, things start getting weird.
“There are six or seven possessed people here at the moment,” Cataldo says calmly. Once he begins to recite his prayer, it’s not long before the demons come out and one by one, members of the congregation fall, hissing and snarling. It's an adjustment to hear God and the Devil being spoken of as absolute truths, but in this setting it’s easier than you’d think for cynicism to slip away. The Church rituals feel, conversely, pagan. And there are some aspects of it which are hard to explain. Is possession a kind of mental illness? Extreme attention-seeking? Mass hysteria (no pun intended)? The priests in the film, of course, claim genuine demonic forces. Demons are spoken of almost as illnesses themselves - “I had Asmodeus,” says one man - and the demand is so high that exorcisms are even performed over the phone.
But while these scenes are initially fascinating, they quickly become repetitive. The footage throws up so many questions that seemed obviously relevant, yet aren’t explored at all. Context, (and therefore the relevance of the film) is kept back until the end, where Cataldo attends a Rome-based conference for exorcists. In the canteen, Japanese exorcists speak with Irish ones, South African exorcists with Americans. After an hour and a half in remote Italian towns, we see the bigger picture; possession is a global phenomenon, and one that is growing. Just before the credits roll, we’re told that exorcisms are ten times as common today than in the past. For me, this knowledge changes possession from mass hysteria brought on by religious belief, to something with an infinite number of variables; it becomes even more unknowable, even more frightening. If it’s significantly on the rise, then this film is urgently relevant in a way that just doesn’t come across.
Not only that, but the personal stories we see don’t offer anything in the way of a deeper understanding. The film feels directionless; there’s no narrative to latch onto, as each quest for deliverance ultimately comes to nothing. Even the simplest questions go unanswered, for example, how does possession feel? Later in the film, someone is asked this. She replies “It felt bad. Now it feels good.” Right then. The detached method of filmmaking means we can’t ask the subjects directly, and we can’t hear from anyone except the priest. In a film about what seems to be a growing global crisis, I would have liked to have heard from some different authorities: some church leaders perhaps, as well as historians, scientists and doctors. Instead we’re left watching the same message being repeated: that prayer will save you, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Ultimately, Deliver Us misses the mark in what I expected from a documentary about exorcism. It revealed little about the experience of either being possessed or exorcised; it offered no alternate views, only really showing the Church’s absolutist theory; and crucially the relevance of the study wasn’t explained until after the final shot. It’s clear that there’s a lot to explore about the rise of demonic possession in the 21st century (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write). I’d love to watch that documentary. Unfortunately Deliver Us was not it.
Deliver Us (Liberami) is released in cinemas on 27th October and on DVD 30th October.