People may well debate whether the devil exists or not. Fine. But what this award-winning documentary does so well, is to prove that the ritual of exorcism remains a living, breathing reality of modern life.
The focus of Deliver Us is Father Cataldo Migliazzo. He’s an 80-year-old Italian priest and veteran exorcist whose skills are in such demand, he runs a weekly deliverance meeting to cast out demons en mass. Every Tuesday folks travel hundreds of miles to attend the three-hour service and at the start, Father Cataldo speaks to the congregation of both the afflicted, and their friends and families.
"For those of you who are new…" he warns. "There are six, seven or eight possessed people here at the moment. Perhaps even more. Don’t be shocked. Stay in your seats. Keep praying, when the negative part starts." And start it does. He chastises the devil from the altar and multiple figures in the crowd start groaning and twitching. Then he calls for the devil to leave and the screams begin. Others start jerking in spasms on the floor. The possessed are taken to a side room, where they are exorcised – but it’s not without a fight. Young men, middle-aged women and teenagers wail and shake, speaking in chilling voices and animal sounds. Like the woman who calls out, "I’ll never give her up! I’m taking her to hell!"
If you think this all sounds like some cheap, sensationalist horror movie – think again. Deliver Us is a thoughtful, measured and non-judgmental film. It’s also a direct challenge to the notion that our modern world is wiping out spiritual thinking. Clearly, it’s not. In fact, the film argues that exorcism is rising today. In Rome and Milan alone, the number of official exorcists has grown from six to twelve and the Church has even set up an emergency call-centre for demonic possession cases (we see Cataldo casting out demons over the phone a few times). In recent years, the number of church approved exorcists in the US has increased tenfold. At one point in the film, we even get a sneak peek at a training conference in Rome, for all these newly qualified demon busters.
Director Frederica Di Giacomo has crafted an excellent documentary, the key to which is how hands off he is. Nobody from the crew appears on screen. There’s no narrator explaining it all. No interviewer asking questions off screen. There are just the priests and the possessed, and a camera you sometimes forget is there. It’s as non-intrusive as you can get, with such a wild and sensitive subject as this.
There’s poignancy too, especially when we see the possessed people in their daily lives. In one haunting shot the camera lingers on a woman listening to hymns of the congregation and after a while a tear rolls down her cheek. You can sense her longing for God. But then the priest passes and she flinches like she’s been slapped. It’s an eerie moment. For so many of these victims, they appear perfectly normal…until the prayers begin. There’s room for humour too – like the scene where a woman is prayed for and is 'slain in the spirit' – only the guy who’s supposed to catch her has wandered off. Ouch.
Cataldo seems convinced the devil’s at work but other priests share their (sometimes laughing) cynicism. Some victims, they suggest, like the thought of being possessed. The psychological theatre of exorcism becomes a strangely effective way of shifting blame and responsibility to another entity - as well as getting attention.
The danger of mis-diagnosing mental illness as demonic is touched on but not explored in depth – but that can be forgiven for a film that’s focused on spiritual beliefs. Whether the devil really is at work in the people who flock to Cataldo is left to the viewer to decide, but in some ways, that’s not the point of the film. What we’re left with is the Church responding to a curious situation. A secular society in which there is growing demand for an ancient, religious rite. One man, who claims to be possessed, says he doesn’t even believe in God or the devil. He doesn’t think that matters. These things are happening to him and he simply wants a cure. Church, he figures, is the best place to find it.
Deliver Us has the potential to disturb some viewers, but don’t be expecting horrendous language or constant blasphemies here. For anyone interested in the modern spiritual landscape however, it’s a profound, thought-provoking and occasionally funny ride. Recommended.
Rev Peter Laws explores the spiritual side of horror at theflicksthatchurchforgot.com, writes a monthly column for The Fortean Times and preaches regularly. He is the author of two novels, Purged and Unleashed and tweets at @revpeterlaws
DELIVER US (LIBERAMI) is in UK cinemas and on DVD now #DELIVERUSFILM