Deliver Us (Libera Nos) first published by Sight & Sound, Nov 2017
Review: In 2005, on christianforums.com, Nathan Poe articulated the principle, now commonly known online as Poe’s Law, which observes that, “without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor”, it is impossible to distinguish a mocking parody of a fundamentalist position from the genuine article. The spirit of Poe possesses Deliver Us (Libera Nos) (aka Liberami), a documentary feature from Federica Di Giacomo (Housing, 2009) which tracks in-demand Sicilian Franciscan Father Cataldo Migliazzo as he performs exorcisms, both collectively and individually, on an ever-growing number of folk convinced that there is a devil inside them. For even as there seems to be little questioning the strength of Cataldo’s religious faith, the film casts diabolical doubt over whether his flock is mentally ill, manipulatively attention-seeking, or actually possessed (whatever that might mean).
Giacomo has gained extraordinarily intimate access to her subjects, and her cinematographers Greta De Lazzaris and Carlo Sisalli stay close to Cataldo in his ceremonial services, his crowded office meetings and his home-visit exorcisms, while also following select parishioners in and around the church and even within the interiors of their cars as they go about both their processes of exorcism and their daily business. This probing observational style comes with all the naturalism that ‘fly on the wall’ implies, and yet the banality is occasionally punctuated by some very strange ritual behaviours. So inherently bizarre is the material that Giacomo presents, that she can just keep her cameras rolling on Cataldo and his congregation and capture all manner of absurdities without any further need to provide ironising voice-over commentary. Of course, editing helps heighten some of these incongruities.
The sight (and sound) of Cataldo performing this most ancient of rites down a modern cellphone to an audibly growling interlocutor is already rich with odd dissonances, but instead of cutting when the ritual is over, Giacomo lingers so that we hear Cataldo close off with “Speak again soon… and give my regards to your husband,” as if nothing unusual had happened between them. Even more hilariously, the interlocutor, moments earlier apparently a snarling vessel of Satan, now wishes Cataldo a “Happy Christmas.” At least this woman appears to believe. Once young Giulia has undergone several ‘Masses of Liberation’ with Cataldo and has been ‘cured’ of her possession, she declines an invitation to attend a normal Mass, “because”, she says, “it bores me.” She is not the only one who fails to see any contradiction in embracing one Catholic rite while otherwise rejecting the tenets of Catholic faith. A young tattooed man, while awaiting the outcome of a criminal trial (but still happy to snort cocaine in front of the camera), pursues, week after week, a one-on-one audience with Cataldo, while excusing his own lack of faith with the paradoxical words, “Some disorders exist whether you believe or not.” He also, having writhed about on the church floor and thrown a chair or two as though bedevilled, admits later to camera that this is the only way to get the priest’s attention (“that’s how it works”). Similarly Grazia, who is evidently visiting a wide circuit of doctors and priests with her ill-defined condition, knows how to make a performance of being possessed if it will get her the notice which she craves. When she crouches wide-eyed against a church’s wall issuing strange feline noises, a priest (this time not Cataldo) observes that the devil has become “a cure-all”, and that without the exorcism rite, “they’d no longer be the centre of attention.” The same priest also responds to Grazia’a animalistic enactment with precisely the winking smile that has otherwise been missing from the film – and lets us feel that the occasional insider sees the ridiculous side of this satanised community as much as we do.
These people do all seem genuinely troubled and in need of help – but the question remains whether (and why) they should be seeking answers in a religious ceremonial that is out of step with these secular times, and often with their own beliefs. What emerges is a view of a postmodern society, where Catholic exorcism has become just one item from a menu of personal care options available to fill the day, barely different from visiting a hairdresser (which we also see Grazia do). The results, though presented with a po-face, deliver sly laughs.
Synopsis: This documentary tracks Sicilian Franciscan Father Cataldo Migliazzo as he performs ritual exorcisms on a growing number of congregants.
© Anton Bitel