Film Reviews

Review: ‘Libera Nos’

Hot Docs 2017

Courtesy of Hot Docs


Libera Nos
(Italy/France, 90 min.)
Dir. Federica Di Giacomo
Programme: World Showcase (Canadian Premiere)

Although I’m a horror movie fan, I’ve ignored most of the relentless lurch of zombie shows because nothing can compare George Romero’s six-part “Dead” series, and as for exorcism epics, William Friedkin’s award-winning movie pretty much nailed that genre to the cross.

Federica Di Giacomo’s Libera Nos is different because it’s a documentary with the power of reality behind it. For some critics and observers, but not necessarily for the director, the demons in the film are the priests, especially Franciscan Father Cataldo Migliazzo. The megastar of Italian exorcists, the Sicilian cleric can barely handle the onslaught of poor souls who desperately want to banish the Satanic entities they believe are possessing them.

To deal with the huge numbers, the good father performs group purgings during exorcism-designated masses. With a cool absence of editorialising, Di Giacomo shows Cataldo in action. He tells the congregation approximately how many possessed souls are among them, advising them to say Hail Marys once disturbances start. The instant he launches into his prayers, the reviled demons (supposedly not their human hosts) scream and shout obscenities. Curiously, they all sound like the devil that possessed poor little Linda Blair.

During more hands-on encounters, the supplicants, some of whose faces we don’t see, twitch, shake, convulse and scream. You wonder whether Father Cataldo is triggering seizures in people who might have neurological problems. The film expands on some of the stories: a punky, coke-addled young guy spits, slams into walls, and begs his girlfriend not to abandon him. One woman crawls around on the floor as the priests comment that she’s like a nasty black cat. A blonde woman, one of the characters the doc highlights, suffers from symptoms modern medicine can’t pinpoint and questions whether or she has been invaded by evil.

Some scenes verge on absurdity. Cataldo exorcizes a demon by talking to it on the phone. Priests make house calls to eliminate the wickedness in stuffed animals. One guy is convinced there’s an imp devoted to messing up people’s sexuality. A worker claims that a client who is not paying him might be possessed.

As you watch the doc, you draw your own conclusions. Perhaps some of the seekers “self-spell,” says a priest, because they crave the attention. The process can be used to denounce people who aren’t doing their homework, failing to attend mass, and so on. Possession can also be an excuse for bad behaviour. Yes, I betrayed you, but the devil made me do it.

Di Giacomo keeps the focus on the film’s characters, their body language and laments. It’s all done in a straightforward style: no horror movie shadows or weird angles. She does, however, include a couple of spooky images. As parishioners enter a Palermo church, a gigantic, fog-blurred setting sun looks apocalyptic. Whether or not the demons are real, vast numbers of people, not just in Sicily but everywhere in the world, believe in their existence. The film ends with a church-sponsored international exorcism conference in Rome that makes that point clear.

Although at time redundant and in need of tightening, Libera Nos effectively points toward a world in moral crisis. Who is that guy in the White House, by the way?

The film makes me think of four of Leonard Cohen’s most exquisite lines:

Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

Libera Nos screens:
-Sunday, May 7 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 9:30 PM

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Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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