Real-Life Exorcisms Are Far More Tragic Than Scary

In her heartbreaking documentary, 'DELIVER US (Liberami)' filmmaker Federica Di Giacomo follows a Sicilian priest as he exorcizes his flock.

Oct 23 2017, 4:46pm

Father Cataldo Migliazzo speaking to a woman who claims to be possessed. All photos courtesy of PR 

Italian filmmaker Federica Di Giacomo never intended to make a film about real-life exorcists. If you're religiously inclined—like many of the tortured and seemingly possessed subjects of her new movie, DELIVER US (Liberami)—you might say that an act of God led her to it.

"I originally set out to make a film about obsession," she says. "I had never expected to stumble across this discovery which was even crazier than I had expected." While living in Sicily, she heard about an exorcism training course for priests that was organized by the Catholic Church—and Sicily was ground zero, with 20 exorcists practicing across the region.

DELIVER US follows Father Cataldo Migliazzo, 80, as he attempts to exorcize the dozens of congregants who turn up at the door of his provincial Sicilian church claiming demonic possession. Di Giacomo spent three years shooting the documentary, which took home the Venice Horizons Golden Lion for best film in 2016.

"We spent several years researching the documentary and built a good relationship with the priests and once they saw that we wanted to make a serious film, in a way that was respectful, they became more involved," she says.

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The film, which premiered in the US in June, comes out in the UK in time for Halloween, but don't expect a real-life take on The Exorcist—Di Giacomo's documentary aims for more fly-on-the-wall realism than gory thrills, and its horrors are more profoundly saddening than they are jump-in-your-seat scary. The people looking for exorcism writhe on the floor and scream or crawl around on all fours and growl like animals, but they are also desperate, lining up for hours in the morning chill to seek treatment from Father Cataldo. As Di Giacomo puts it: "You feel their intense suffering."

She still remembers the first exorcism she witnessed, near the Sicilian city of Catania. "It was a young woman; she was a very difficult case. It was in this little church and she was screaming. Once she stopped screaming, she immediately calmed down and began to play with the priest, but speaking to him using an odd, unnatural voice.

"After that, this young lady turned towards me and we went out to get an ice cream in front of the church and she spoke normally about what had just happened. It was very strange and an extraordinary moment."

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As shocking as these cases of possession may seem, Father Cataldo is unmoved—he's seen it all before, and lets Di Giacomo and her film crew shoot even the most prosaic moments, including what can only be described as a long-distance exorcism conducted over a phone call to a follower.

According to the Catholic Church, requests for exorcism are on the rise across Europe. The number of Church-sanctioned exorcists has risen from six to 12 in Rome and Milan alone, and there's even an emergency telephone line for the afflicted. Bishops appoint individual priests to the role of exorcists, which means some of them may never have asked to do the job in the first place.

People lining up to be blessed at Father Cataldo's church.

"To watch the everyday life of an exorcist, you understand they're not choosing to do this. They're nominated by the bishop to do this work," Di Giacomo says. The work, she adds, is often grueling—the priests become confessor, counselor, and savior all in one. "They get tired, because they have a lot of work to do every day, they can't tell anyone to leave, they must listen to everyone."

Most film reviews of DELIVER US have pointed out that Father Cataldo's flock suffer from obvious mental illness and would be better off seeking psychiatric treatment rather than a sprinkling of holy water, but Di Giacomo's film never passes judgment on the afflicted or speculates as to the cause of their so-called possession.

"I think there is still a failure in our welfare system of how to help people with a certain kind of disease," Di Giacomo tells me. "Sometimes when there is no help from rational answers, people may turn to the more irrational answers like seeking out exorcism."

And it's not just older religious men and women who drawn to Father Cataldo for help—there is a teenage girl whose family brings her in for treatment, and a young tattooed man who spends his evenings partying in clubs and snorting drugs.

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"There are many so-called possessed people who are not Catholic fanatics but common people who chose to move closer to the Church to help through a particularly difficult moment in their life," Di Giacomo explains. "It's all-encompassing."

Most of the people filmed, she adds, later told her that the exorcism worked: They were delivered. "A lot of them don't want to speak about it anymore," she says. "It's a very difficult period of their life, they want to move on and live their lives, especially the young people."

Father Cataldo exorcizing someone over the phone.

If there is a straightforward villain to the piece, it isn't Satan—it's the Catholic Church, which reacts to the booming demand for exorcism by putting on a global conference to train up even more exorcists. But even then, Di Giacomo says it's not as simple as accusing the Church of a con job. Some Catholics, she says, don't even believe in Satan anymore—but Father Cataldo and his followers do, and they genuinely believe that exorcism is necessary.

"I think that's part of the challenge of the film, it's one that can be watched by everyone, Catholics and non-Catholics, but you have to choose a position of what you believe or don't believe while viewing," she says.

In fact, the whole process of shooting the film left Di Giacomo with more questions than answers. "I'm not Catholic myself but it is such a complex matter," she says. "Every day we discovered even more that was fascinating… and I ended with more doubts than when I began."

DELIVER US is in cinemas in the UK on October 27 and DVD on October 30.