The biggest shock in Federica Di Giacomo’s Deliver Us, a doc tracking the everyday toil of exorcists in Sicily, comes when the priests, at last enjoying a respite from the writhing/spitting/yowling parishioners who occupy their days, admit to each other what you’ve probably thinking for the previous hour. “It’s a kind of self-spell,” one priest says. Another notes that some of the purportedly possessed must simply enjoy the attention. They’re not dismissive as they say this, and they always seem to regard their job with great seriousness, even when literally phoning it in. We see one priest exhort, “Go away, Satan!” into his cell, as whoever’s on the other end sputters and cries. Tough-cookie priest Father Cataldo doesn’t waste time when parents approach him to say they believe that their child has been taken by demons. “The devil enters the home and disturbs the weakest, the children, when the grown-ups are not in the grace of God,” he says — that’s his first answer. When pressed, he adds, “A disorder starts from you, because a woman has to be a woman of faith.” (Cataldo is so dead serious that his response to being introduced to a parishioner’s eagle is to marvel for a breath at the bird’s majesty and then proclaim that all it’s missing is a soul.)
Cataldo’s word, disorder, suggests the rich questions that go mostly unasked: Do the priests believe the possessed are performing? That they’re mad? Or that the personified forces of wickedness have truly claimed their bodies? Do they seem themselves as expelling damnable spirits or participating in a sort of punishing therapeutic improv? The filmmakers observe rather than interview or investigate, and much of the film is footage of actual church-sanctioned exorcisms. Teens snarl and swear; a mohawked punk flings himself around a waiting room; at a special Mass held for those struggling with possession, Father Cataldo’s “I mock you and despise you” and “I tread on you as the Celestial Mother did” are greeted with screams from the congregation. Sometimes the priests handle a couple of cases at once, in the same room, a scene less like The Exorcist then breakout sessions at a conference.
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The devil is more polite inside these vessels than it tends to be in the horror films the possessed have undoubtedly seen. One surly demon, allegedly in command of a woman who seems to be in her 40s, flings a chair when confronted with the ol’ power of Christ compels you jazz, but is nice enough to be sure it lands nowhere near God’s champions. Watching the young people fall into trances and fits, pitching their voices to nasty Gollum croaks, never stopped reminding me of my junior high self playing sick to get out of school. The final scenes take us to Rome, to a conference of exorcists, whose shoptalk we get to eavesdrop on all too briefly. Turns out the church is facing an epidemic of such possessions around the world, so more priests than ever are getting trained in the art. Or is it a science? Or is it an elaborate unacknowledged collaborative role-playing game?