25 Most Disturbing Movies, #11: The Devils

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Continuing Simon Augustine's countdown of the Most Disturbing Movies (Read Part 1 for the previous 13) [<< #12]

11. The Devils (1971) 10/7
(Still not on DVD as of publication)

A grand freak-out of religious sexual frenzy, persecution and humanist martyrdom, The Devils is probably the most censored film in history and the most accomplished film by supreme agent provocateur and English madman Ken Russell. Based on sci-fi demiurge Aldous Huxley's semi-historical novel The Devils of Loudon, it is the story of Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), the leader/priest of an outpost of Protestantism in a sixteenth-century France that Louis XIII - prodded by corrupt Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) and his henchman - is trying to “persuade” (with theology, Christian love, and torture) to become more Catholic. Because he is a womanizing priest who, at least by outward societal standards, is a hypocritical philanderer (secretly marrying another priest's daughter), but is also possessed of wildly free-minded honesty about spirituality and sexuality, Grandier becomes a convenient target of a campaign of persecution that on the face is religious but at bottom is really a politically motivated attempt to bring down the priest's Protestant fortress.

Vanessa Redgrave is a crippled and horribly repressed Mother Superior who harbors a secret obsession with Grandier that boils the ecstasy of crucifixion and orgasm into a heady mix, and eventually leads her out of self-hatred and rejection to indict him. At the heart of the story's battle between religion and politics is a complex dynamic between sexual energy and religious truth: The Devils is most interested in exploring how minds can be twisted when they mistake repression (imposed by the will power of oneself or others) with spiritual liberation, and how the natural instincts - ground under the heel of religious pageantry - can be harnessed by corrupt men to harm the innocent and dissuade followers from their true selves and causes. Don't let yourself be too distracted by the elaborate cruelty and naked nuns; The Devils, if deeply plumbed, holds intellectual treasures.

Eventually the church authorities bring in a fraudulent and fanatical priest, inquisitor, and exorcist (Michael Gothard, who looks like an early 1970s bespectled hippie by way of the 17th century; it's a freak scene, man) to elicit confessions in order to destroy Grandier. Russell has a ball mixing the ornate gothic architecture, fanatical sadism, and Christian symbolism of pre-Revolutionary France with the flamboyant and outrageous 70s aesthetic of garish abandon ruling the world at the time of the film's release. It's a pleasure watching a master of meticulous debauchery mining and lampooning the classic Catholic tension between spirit and flesh, expressing the wondrous variations of self-flagellation through terrific and controversial images.

All is iron gates, symmetrical cathedrals, and sadistic torture machines, pitted against explosions of torment, tenderness, and lust in the form of writhing bodies or heretical fantasy. It is spiritual struggle as tension vs. release, power vs. insight, death vs. sex, and repression vs. freedom. Mother Superior is tortured with what looks like a huge metal turkey baster filled with steaming hot water; Grandier is burned alive in a bizarre version of martyrdom before the townspeople; and in the most celebrated and vilified scene, the nuns of go into a sexual frenzy, rip their clothes off and get off on a crucifix (a scene based on an actual case of hysteria in the Church.) Many headline papers and critics of the time, including the New York Times, got it way wrong, and were dissuaded by the intensity, while missing the meaning.

Ken Russell directing Oliver Reed on The Devils set (image from the Guardian UK)

In films like Altered States, Women In Love, Lair of the White Worm, and The Music Lovers, Russell loves to flirt boldly with the line between the sacred and show-offy; the sublime and ridiculous. He is a filmmaker of excess, but in The Devils such excess is held perfectly in check by amazing acting, art design, cinematography and unwavering dedication to a story of sensationalism but also of real tragedy.

The Devils has been one of the most banned films in history; it became, ironically and predictably, accused of heretical symbolism and sexual obscenity, and has appeared since 1971 in a large variety of chopped up forms. I'm still not sure I've seen the complete version. And a good, uncut transfer DVD with extras has yet to be released.


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