Federica Di Giacomo’s exorcism documentary DELIVER US (aka Libera Nos) has already earned praise and plaudits, showing at the Venice Film Festival and winning the prestigious Orizzonti Prize. It’s a frank, unwavering observational piece that examines the Catholic church’s practices surrounding exorcism, focusing mainly on the exploits of Sicillian Fransiscan Father Cataldo Migliazzo.
This is far from my first brush with documentaries about exorcism. I distinctly remember childhood trauma caused by television specials purporting to show real-life possessions, complete with unsettling narrative voiceovers, sensational music, and an exploitative soundtrack of demonic growling and screaming. I was raised Catholic, so I guess the idea hit closer to home for me. Could possession truly be a real thing? Could it happen to me?
It wasn’t until I aged a few more years that I finally saw The Exorcist, and by that time I was already shedding my religion and superstition for a more skeptical existence. While it’s a masterpiece of the genre, my change of mindset might be why Friedkin’s film never managed to get under my skin quite as much as it did for others. Maybe the trauma-healing process that followed that sensationalized television specials as a younger age was enough to put fear of demons at rest in my mind once and for all?
DELIVER US is just as disturbing to me as those old television specials. In fact, it’s far more disturbing, because it’s real – but not real in the sense of real demonic possession. It’s real in that vulnerable, sick, mentally disturbed people are being led to believe they’re possessed by demons, and authority figures they turn to for “help” inside the church are making things immeasurably worse by misleading them and depriving them of the treatment they desperately need.
People travel all over Italy to see Father Cataldo. His congregation treats him as some kind of demon-battling superhero. He nonchalantly talks of demons, and his attitude toward exorcising them from hapless supplicants seems equal to him spraying Febreze on a couch to rid it of an unpleasant odor. At one stage in the film, he even gives an exorcism over the phone on his 1-800-Exorcisms-R-Us hotline.
His subjects rant, rave, scream, and speak in tongues. The scenes of hysteria are upsetting to say the least, and Giacomo’s camera casts a passive eye on the proceedings. The film abandons the viewer, leaving them alone with these lost individuals. There’s no breaking of the fourth fall. There are no sit-down interviews, no filmmaker interjection or interference, and no second opinions from mental health professionals. The viewers are left just as helpless as these poor folks who think they’re possessed.
We only find out brief snippets of their histories. What led these people to such a last ditch effort to find mental peace? Why have they been so failed by the health system in Italy? We never get many answers. These people aren’t spewing pea soup, their heads aren’t spinning into unnatural positions, they’re not spider-walking down the stairs – they’re just regular, sick people who need help.
Between the horrible “possession” outbursts during Cataldo’s weekly masses, the out-of-tune hymnal singing, and the irresponsible mental health advice doled out by the priests, it seems as though the church is a barbaric, archaic asylum in and of itself. The shocking statistics that close the film indicate that these exorcism practices are on the rise, and while Giacomo’s documentary is beautifully made, I found it frustrating that nothing was done to challenge the subjects. I understand WHY the film is nothing more than observational, but I wanted to yell at the screen on multiple occasions.
There’s a segment of DELIVER US where Cataldo reads from what I believe is “Leviticus 19:31”. There’s a line of advice in there which the film’s subtitles translate to “Keep away from wizards.” I’d say that’s a fantastic idea for people who think they’re possessed by demons: don’t mess with wizards! Or at least keep far away from old men in robes and ritualistic temples.
DELIVER US had it’s Quebec Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival on July 31st.