The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)
Banned in many countries and rated X in others, Ken Russell’s telling of Urbain Grandier’s (Oliver Reed) priest life and trial is an unforgettable film. Depicting a sexually repressed head nun, sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) masturbating and dreaming of Grandier as a christ figure that she wants to fornicate with. She goes berserk when she learns that the priest got married with another woman. Accusing him of witchcraft and fornication.
Blending politics, religion, and satire, The Devils made such an impression in 1971 that it is not surprising that getting a decent copy of this film might be one of the graals of the modern day cinephiles. I had to rent a low quality VHS tape to actually get to this mandatory film that in some way is very difficult to watch but also very graphic in its depiction of violence, sex, and blasphemy. It is even hard to figure how such a bold film ever got made. Russell’s mise en scene is inspired and the few means and sets used to shot the interiors and fortifications of Loudun are quite believable and unbelievable at the same time.
What Russell, a convinced christian himself, does with The Devils is demonstrating how regilion and religious beliefs have been used by politicians to spread their power just like cardinal Richelieu did with Loudun in his fear/hate of protestants. The exorcist, performed by Father Barre (Michael Gothard) is a whole show and he looks like a rock star. He wants to entertain and get the audience something for what they came for. Torture as always is used to make people confess but it is proven that you can make anyone say anything you want when you torture them. Russell shows that when religion is not separated from the state it is dangerous and even if Grandier has sinned as a man he is still a man of God and he is the saint amongst the other fathers who trialed him.
Just like a film like The Exorcist, The Devils is another film that has lots of religious meanings for believers. However, it is unlike a masterpiece like Ordet that is religious but not need someone to actually be christian to be frighten or convinced. It also wants to prove that faith has been perversed.
As an atheist, I found it difficult to be interpelled by a film that displays how religion has perserved and controlled the human kind. In this case, the religion seems more to be sexuality than christianism. And that people giving themselves to the faith are forced to repress their needs to follow the learnings. At first, the viewer gets an impression of schocking material and that this artistic film wanted to get people to think that the church was a big joke or a big show. But I think that most viewers won’t get the subtle message through the flamboyant imagery and in your face directing. The presence of Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave is haunting and both are outstanding in their repective parts. Over the top and extravagantly in touch with the rest of this cult film.