In select UK cinemas this week, Italian director Federica Di Giacomo eschews genre sensationalism for her Palermo-set exorcism documentary Deliver Us (Liberami), which is far more interested in its human subjects than it is in the demonic.
Of course, the very notion of a religious procedure to rid people of evil spirits may seem like genre fare to certain audiences. They are likely to be progressively blinded by fury as people who appear to be in severe psychiatric distress are told that their malady is the result of poor religious observance. This will be compounded by closing text that verifies the extent to which the Vatican is ramping up their current, international, exorcism activities. Di Giacomo, however, manages to avoid didactic, offering as much humanity to the priests as she does their flock.
There are no set pieces here, which there could well have been. The director is not tempted to employ familiar techniques of shooting or representing this events usually confined to horror movies. Cinematographers Greta de Lazzaris and Carlo Sisalli are careful to avoid the type of shaky handheld documentary camerawork that horror has itself adopted. Often subjects are shot in medium-long shots which is advisable partly due to the way that some people thrash around, and often shots are the best that can be managed in the circumstances. Di Giacomo doesn’t build sequences to heighten tension, although some is unavoidable. Often, the film follows the relatively mundane work of the Franciscan Father Cataldo Migliazzo, the film’s primary protagonist, and the otherwise everyday lives of those who come to him for help.
And there are many that do. Father Cataldo has become so popular that the faithful travel from miles around to be exorcised by him. The preamble to one of his meetings is entirely transactional, his assistant arranging who will be seen, often based on how far they’ve come. In one humorous and disquieting moment, Father Cataldo performs an exorcism by mobile phone: “Happy Christmas, give my regards to your husband.” In another, he appears to be annoyed that a beautiful painting has not been donated to the church and proceeds to soak it in holy saltwater during a ritual cleansing.
Of course, these moments offer light relief but the really crux of Libera Nos comes down to the people who believe that they are possessed. Documentary cinema has to be aware at the best of times that those in front of the camera are wont to perform when its on. It is clear to see that Father Cataldo and his fellow priests have to contend with similar demands for attention and it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that some of those possessed in the film are indeed playing to the audience. However, it’s those that are clearly troubled that have the most impact it is on their behalf that audience’s are likely to be infuriated. As Father Cataldo warns: “You have be careful because the devil is always there. He’s sly.”
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson