Aug 1, 2011

On DVD: Two Exorcisms

I never saw The Exorcist when it came out. In those days I was a total film snob and refused to sully my arty track record with Hollywood dreck of mega-hit magnitude, even if it was blockbusters everybody talked about. That's the reason why I didn't see Jaws when it opened. When I saw The Exorcist for the first time on DVD, not too long ago, I was surprised at how effective it seemed. It is a very well made film and it spooked me, even if I can't give a rat's ass about the devil, Satan, the Catholic Church or any of that mumbo jumbo. Seeing the digitally remastered DVD for a second time, however, was extremely underwhelming. I love the cinematography by Owen Roizman, and Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, and the visual, sound effects and the make up are great, even if the make up isn't aging all that well. But The Exorcist is literal, basic and pretentious at the same time. It never bothers explaining why the devil wants to invade a smurfy, unlikable kid like Linda Blair, and the movie feels rather silly and campy rather than scary. There is very little suspense. The acting is over the top. The Devil and Max Von Sydow are the best things in the movie.

But perhaps I felt this way because I saw it right after I saw Requiem, a German movie from 2006, about a real possession case that happened in Germany in the 1970s.
Requiem has no effects. There is no green bile, no turning heads, no obscene bloody stigmata. No one dies. It's about Michaela, a young, devout Catholic college student, (the incredible Sandra Huller) from a small country town in Germany, who suffers from Grand Mal epileptic seizures, which make her hear voices. In her case, because she is a rather obsessive Catholic from a very devout family, she is obsessed with the idea of suffering and martyrdom, and ends up believing she is possessed by demons. Requiem is the most rational approach to the idea that a person can be possessed by outside evil forces. What satanic possession is to some, mental illness is to others. Here, the approach is dispassionate and barely ambiguous. The movie does not believe in demonic possession. But it believes that faith taken literally can trigger horrors of irrationality that can seem positively satanic, yet they are all in the mind. Watching Michaela destroy herself is super creepy. Seeing the actress teeter between total normalcy and lucidity and stubborn belief is super creepy. She is a very sympathetic character. A nerd, a fish out of water, she has a stone cold, controlling mother who wants to keep her from hurt but under her thumb, and an understanding father (Burghart Klaussner, the clergyman from The White Ribbon) who wants her to live her life. At school, far away from home, her epileptic episodes become tinged with religious overtones. She believes she is incapable of touching a rosary, then incapable of praying. She thinks demons lurk inside her. Her young friends want her to seek psychiatric counseling, but she refuses. The family, being devoutly Catholic, also frowns on horrid-sounding diagnoses from the doctors. No one wants to believe their child is mad. Michaela stops taking her pills. She gets worse. What is terrifying in this small, effective film is how isolating her madness is, but also how willful. Her willfulness envelops everyone around her, like what she probably assumes is what charismatic saints do to other people. Instead of going to a shrink, she goes to her parish priest. Surprisingly, he tells her that the devil and the miracles and all those tropes of good and evil are not to be taken literally, but as symbols, and that what she needs is a shrink! But she doesn't listen, so another, younger, creepier priest steps in and wants to perform an exorcism. Since she refuses medical treatment, she makes this the only option available to her. She is hell-bent in believing she is possessed, therefore she is. I find this not only enormously disturbing, but more terrifying than buckets of cheesy Hollywood make-up. Whatever demons she has rest solely in her psyche, which can be the most terrifying place of all.
There are a couple of scenes in this movie that are the same in the American movie. The scene where the mother is bathing her in the bathtub and the scene where the priest first confronts her demons. They could not have been achieved in more opposite ways, but Michaela's reaction is very similar to Regan's: she screams hysterically, she curses the priests, she gets completely out of character -- you'd think she had the devil inside her.
In the end, a chilling title informs us that Michaela died of exhaustion after 12 exorcisms. This is the stuff that makes the hair at the back of my neck stand on end. 

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