The notion of demonic possession and exorcism has long provided fodder for the horror genre to exploit, but these seemingly archaic rituals meant to rid poor, unfortunate souls of the evil lurking within are not the product of some bygone era, they’re still actively practiced in today’s Catholic church. Federica Di Giacomo’s documentary Deliver Us offers a startling depiction of these rites, focused on a group of parishioners at a small church in Sicily where Father Cataldo and his colleagues regularly perform exorcisms.
Di Giacomo takes a completely observational approach with her film: there are no interviews, no voiceovers, and no opinions expressed. Instead, she allows the audience to form their own conclusions about the images they see, many of which are truly frightening – but not always in the way you might think. Throughout the film, subjects writhe around on the floor, snarling and spitting at the priests who stand over them, calmly reciting prayers and occasionally sprinkling holy water – an act which is often met with shrieks of pain and a tirade of guttural curses. But are these people truly afflicted by an agent of Satan, or are they struggling with some kind of mental illness that is manifesting in this sort of erratic behavior? Deliver Us offers no arguments in favor of either possibility.
There’s something uncomfortable about watching a priest inform a young mother that her son’s behavioral problems are a direct result of her not “living with the grace of God,” or shuffling through someone’s home, flinging holy water at paintings and ordering the family to destroy the children’s toys – especially the black teddy bear. But even more disturbing – not to mention heartbreaking – is the realization that so many people rely solely on treatment of a spiritual nature, which precludes them from seeking out mental health professionals and ultimately could allow their condition to deteriorate further.
Your own personal faith will no doubt affect the way you interpret these events, but regardless of whether or not you believe in the notion of an evil presence taking up residence in someone’s body, there’s no denying that many of these people are in great pain, and the suffering is spreading to their families and loved ones. This raises the question of whether or not Father Cataldo and his fellow exorcists are truly helping these people – with some parishioners visiting the church multiple times over the course of several months, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume these methods are ineffective. But for some visitors, a pilgrimage to Father Cataldo’s church might make all the difference in the world.