I just finished watching Ken Russel’s film The Devils (1971), currently streaming over at The Criterion Channel.
The film is itself an adaptation of a 1960 play of the same name by John Whiting, as well as the 1952 non-fictoin novel by Aldux Huxley, entitled, The Devils of Loudun.
Criterion is streaming the 108 minute cut of the film, which is not the uncut version.
The events depicted in the film are based on true events which occurred in Loudun, France in the year 1634. Interestingly enough, Cardinal Richelieu (of Three Musketeers infamy) figures in the story as a kind of distant antagonist.
Without giving too much away, the story centers on a French Catholic Priest, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), and the Mother Superior of Loudun’s Ursuline convent, Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave). The titular “Devils” go unnamed for most of the film, although an Exorcist eventually puts his finger on them. They are Lucifer, Beelzebub, Satan, Astaroth, Leviathan, and Elimi.
The document their pact is scrawled upon doesn’t make an appearance in the film. Indeed, the presense of a diabolical, supernatural force of evil is all but absent from the proceedings. At the end, the viewer is left to wonder just *who* the devils really are.
After viewing the film, I did some searching and came upon famed movie critic Roger Ebert’s review of an 111 minute U.S. theatrical cut he viewed in Chicago around the New Year in 1971. He seems to have been either offended or fatigued (or both) by the depiction of the events of the film and his entire review kind of just sounds as though he really hated even having to write about the film. Nevertheless, as with all of his writing, it stands apart.
Now truth, as I’ve explained before, is what’s real. If it isn’t real, it isn’t true, which is why a stone is better than a dream. If it isn’t reality, who needs it? Or could lay hands on it, anyway? And everything on the list above really happened, yes it did. All the events and persons depicted in The Devils are intended to be confused with actual events and persons. How do I know? Ken Russell tells me so.
He gave the film zero stars. AKA, a thumbs down. If memory serves, Ebert was Catholic. That may have factored into his rating.
Speaking about the controversy over the film’s graphic depictions of, well, everything, Oliver Reed is reported to have quipped, “We never set out to make a pretty Christian film, Charlton Heston made enough of those… The film is about twisted people.”
Elsewhere, in an interview conducted last year for the now-defunct FilmStruck (which has been more or less reborn as The Criterion Channel), Kevin M. Flanagan discussed the film and remarked that some critics thought of Huxley’s novel as having been influenced by the HUAC hearings in the US at the time he was writing the book.
My own impression is that the film is an arresting visual achievement that manages to encapsulate the profound and boundless heights and depths to which human beings are capable of going in the name of religion. Some basic themes I found were individuality and freedom versus tyranny and collectivism, faith and conviction versus invective and hysteria, and purity versus impurity.
All graphic depictions and artistic liberties aside, against the backdrop of the French Renaissance and Richelieu’s systematic persecution of the Protestants, I found the story to be hopeful. That a man can choose to give himself over to various powers in recognition of their authority, or he may choose not to do so. Furthermore: that a man’s ability to recognize the primacy of an authority is directly informed by the nature of his relationship with it, and contingent upon his acknowledgement of its reality, or alternatively, his repudiation of its paucity and fraudulence.
Perhaps, though, it is easier to go around looking for devils behind every misfortune than it is to step into the potential of one’s own free will.