Liberami: The unnerving proof that reality is more powerful than fiction
by Stefan Dobroiu
- VENICE 2016: Italian director Federica Di Giacomo gets unprecedented access to the work of the Vatican’s exorcist priests
Every now and then, horror films about gory exorcism cases show up in cinemas, many of them trying (and some succeeding) to re-invent the efficiency of the ultra-classic The Exorcist. But no matter how bloody or how “inspired by true events” they are, these films are obvious works of fiction trying to scare the audience with their savage imagery. Italian director Federica Di Giacomo’s documentary Liberami [+see also:
film profile], winner of the Orizzonti Award at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, explores several exorcisms conducted by Vatican-approved priests.
What is amazing about Liberami is the unprecedented access that the filmmaker got both to the church, where specialised priests perform exorcism Masses, but also to the lives of those sporting mysterious symptoms as soon as they enter a holy place, hear a prayer or are touched with holy water. Is it a mental disorder? Or are these persons truly victims of demonic possession? The documentary doesn't take sides, and the director is very careful not to interfere with what happens in front of her camera. The result is truly disturbing, even haunting, suggesting that reality is not far behind the imagination of screenwriters.
Written by Di Giacomo and Andrea Sanguigni, the documentary opens with a quote from the Book of Job, in which Satan boasts to God that he has been roaming the earth. He must have reached Palermo, too, the documentary suggests from its very first sequence, as a woman seated on a chair in a chapel flooded by light starts contorting as soon as the priest touches her with his stole. The woman howls in a screeching voice: “She is mine, she is mine!” The scene has nothing of the dark atmosphere of horror films, but the horror is there nonetheless.
Liberami surprises us as it suggests that, at least from the church’s point of view, ailments of the soul are treated exactly the same as those of the body. Father Cataldo, an exorcist priest from Palermo, is presented like a surgeon: sought by flocks of believers for advice, his meeting hall looks like a hospital emergency room. Some cases are treated immediately; others are postponed. A gesture of his hand can be as efficient as a scalpel, excising a trouble of the soul as if it were a tumour. In another sequence, priests attending an international conference on exorcism calmly discuss over lunch the difficulties of their trade.
Even those suffering from demonic interferences talk about their problems as if they have a certain illness. “I have Asmodeus,” says a man talking about an infamous demon of lust who can twist people’s sexual desires. But coming from his mouth, the assessment is as harmless as if he were saying, “I have psoriasis.”
The camerawork by Greta De Lazzaris and Carlo Sisalli is incredibly unobtrusive, but Liberami is not content to only observe the people around: Di Giacomo succeeds in showing not only the priests’ actions, but also the deepest concerns of those treated by them. Intimate conversations bring context and feeling to an already touching situation.
Liberami was produced by MIR Cinematografica with the support of RAI Cinema, and was co-produced by Paris-based Opera Films and France 3 ViaStella. The film is handled internationally by True Colours.
As part of the Venice Sala Web catalogue, Liberamiis being screened online from 7-17 September here.