In 1634, Father Grandier (Oliver Reed, Oliver!) exercises immense power over a small French commune that includes a group of devoted nuns, headed by Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave, Julia). When Cardinal Richelieu (English poet Christopher Logue) perceives Grandier as a threat to his plan to consolidate power, Richelieu decides to get rid of the priest by claiming that Grandier is a devil worshiper.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Sin can be caught as easily as the plague.”
One of the most outrageous movies ever made. After receiving endless accolades for his film adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, British filmmaker Ken Russell evidently lost his mind — this surreal and grotesque historical drama set during the witch hunts of the 17th century is like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible turned inside out.
Dear Lord, where do I start? If you’ve never seen this movie you can’t say that you’ve seen it all. Even after some controversial scenes were removed by distributors, The Devils was banned in many countries around the world. The Catholic Church was (understandably) furious and denounced the film as sacrilegious.
It’s my first time watching the uncut version and The Devils is even more bizarre in its unadulterated form. Director Russell unleashes the demons of creativity and sets them loose like no one before or after. However, this isn’t crazy for the sake of being crazy — there is a method to the madness. Russell uses crude hyperbole (brilliantly, I must add) to convey the idea of intellectual and moral chaos.
Incredibly, The Devils was inspired by true events. Russell’s screenplay was based on famed English author and philosopher Aldous Huxley’s (Brave New World) 1952 non-fiction book The Devils of Loudun (the book was later adapted into a stage play). This is a history lesson done through filmmaker Russell’s offbeat and unique sensibilities.
Purportedly about the dangers of mixing politics and religion, The Devils covers too much ground to be dismissed as a mere agitprop movie. Politics and religion are important elements of the movie, but Russell leaves no stone unturned in his rabid analysis of many societal ills — it’s impossible to label the movie as one thing.
Russell deliberately mixes up anything and everything in order to illustrate a world of pandemonium. The director blurs the lines between secularism and religion, fantasy and reality, devotion and fanaticism, love and lust. Relaying on complex and provocative visual imagery, one could say that The Devils is ultimately about the relationship between power and corruption, and the consequences of boundary violations.
Apparently, this was actor Oliver Reed’s favorite film role. Reed is perfect as the vain and arrogant Catholic priest accused of witchcraft. Vanessa Redgrave gives a superbly physical performance as a sexually-repressed nun with a hunchback. Michael Gothard (For Your Eyes Only) plays Father Barre, the main exorcist (the exorcism in The Exorcist is kid’s stuff compared to this one). Graham Armitage (The Boy Friend) plays King Louis XIII of France. Film debut of Gemma Jones (Sense and Sensibility).
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Despite some viewers trying to claim the contrary, The Devils isn’t an exploitation movie. Filmmaker Ken Russell, “The Bad Boy of British Cinema” and master provocateur, is clearly pushing the boundaries of what constitutes art. I personally think that the film is some kind of masterpiece, I’m just not quite sure what kind. In any event, the film’s themes — anti-fascism, pro-separation of church and state, etc. — seem to be as important as they have ever been. Color, 113 minutes, Rated X (NC-17).