The words and images of the Catholic rite of exorcism are familiar from dozens of horror films, from the most famous of them all, The Exorcist itself, through The Devil Inside, The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund and Accidental Exorcist, with international variations shown in such as The Wailing, but it is a very different matter when the accompanying moans and screams are not those of a paid actor.
In Deliver Us (Liberami), director Federica Di Giacomo follows Father Cataldo, principally, and his associates as they attempt to cope with the demands on their team of twenty exorcists operating in Sicily, one of a growing number across Europe according to the closing notes on the documentary with the number in Rome and Milan having allegedly doubled to twelve and the archdiocese of Madrid seeking to fill seven vacancies.
Di Giacomo’s statement on the film explaining that it arose out an interest in exploring obsessions and addictions, and while she has certainly done that it is a frustrating and abstract experience without structure or objectivity, a random assemblage of footage as the camera follows the ministrations of the exorcist without providing context, commentary or evidence.
There are no direct interviews, no subjects are specifically introduced, nor are there any unbiased external assessments of the medical condition of those attending the weekly masses held by Father Cataldo, those whom he visits at home or those whom he is too busy to see and for whom he performs the rites remotely over the telephone.
Even without a more objective lens, what is apparent is the absolute hold religion has through life in the region. These people are not primitive, they are not sheltered, they are not uneducated, yet they are conditioned to defer absolutely to the church without question or any form of intellectual resistance.
A child refuses to go to school, spits on the teacher: call the exorcist. A woman exhibits the behaviours of depression and multiple sclerosis yet displays no measurable physical symptoms: call the exorcist.
Does Father Cataldo indulge these people – and many more – to maintain his standing in the community, or is it an act of kindness to offer them some measure of support in a system which is failing them?
While not addressed by Di Giacomo it is believed that the rite of exorcism can have a positive effect, that if the sufferer believes they are under the influence of demons that they will themselves, if not to health, at least to overcome the worst of their symptoms, a placebo effect on an imagined ailment.
Certainly, Cataldo is neither a warm man who holds his flock to his bosom nor is he averse to sowing the seeds of distress when he directly tells his congregation there may be six to eight among them who are possessed, their symptoms so vague that it lays guilt and shame on them all merely for being humans at odds with the gospel.
God taking credit for the wonders of nature, the end of an eclipse representing a smile from the Holy Father, evil is found in piles of laundry – “In confusion like this the Devil lurks!” – and the comforts of childhood – “Get rid of all those dolls… burn them, especially the black one!”
A portrait bordering on a depiction of psychological abuse, at least Cataldo does not blame the children directly, his tirade stemming from the traditional misogyny of the Catholic Church and its obsession with the doctrine of original sin: “If you want to know, the disorder starts from you because a mother has to be a woman of faith.”
The church displaying an insidious need to maintain its hold, a family is told the healing of their daughter can only come if all of them convert, then using the same language and methods which they have just learned they continue to control her; she may be free of demons, but not them.