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The Devils

Screening on Film
Directed by Ken Russell.
With Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, Dudley Sutton.
UK, 1971, 35mm, color, 109 min.
Print source: HFA

“Most religions believe that by crying, ‘Lord, Lord!’ often enough, they can contrive to enter the kingdom of heaven. A flock of trained parrots could just as readily cry the same thing with just as little chance of success.”

Legendary madman Ken Russell, adapting a non-fiction novel by Aldous Huxley about corrupt priests, sexual repression and hysteria in a 17th century French village, tries to push every possible button and succeeds. Banned in many countries, including Italy where it nevertheless won a prize at the Venice Film Festival, critic Judith Crist derided it as a “grand fiesta for sadists and perverts.”

But there’s far more in this fiesta than the infamous scenes of torture, naked nuns submitting to orgiastic exorcism, and Michael Gothard’s memorably crazy inquisitor. Russell is after something much more sophisticated, which perhaps got drowned out in all the hullaballoo. Like many of the great 70s films, this is a story about power, and what happens when a single man tries to step out of line and go up against the System. Oliver Reed is fantastic as the priest whose charisma and ambition creates a problem for the Church that’s more political than spiritual.

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