THE DEVILS would not be the sermon to spring on showgoers primed for The Singing Nun. Unless—you’re serial provocateur Ken Russell, who wrote & directed this 1971 assault & battery tormentaganza. Part unsettling historical drama, vividly reimagining a grotesque travesty of justice, abuse of power and warping of religion in the 17th-century, part artistic indulgence run riot, in step with the license of the 20th, Russell’s conflagration put critics, clergy and crowds on the rack. This is not your Aunt Mildred’s church gala.
“If they are not driven out, your devils might, by their infernal arts, prevent the torture being as excruciating as it should be. Then you would never confess, and your soul would be damned for eternity. Are you ready to confess?”
France, the 1630’s. In the town of Loudon, earthy but honest priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) is supported by most townfolk, but comes under triangulated assault from religious fanatics and political plotters. The State, in the form of Cardinal Richelieu’s corrupt emissary, targets the city for resisting its power grab, deranged hunchback Sister Jean des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave), infatuated with Grandier, accuses him of witchcraft, and ‘Father Pierre Barre’ (Michael Gothard), a lunatic inquisitor, proceeds with exorcising imagined demons and the mockery of a show trial. The town goes berserk.
Russell’s script adapted Aldous Huxley’s 1952 non-fiction novel “The Devils Of Loudon” and John Whiting’s 1960 play he based on it. He had elaborate stylized sets designed, and instructed his actors to go for the rafters: Reed, Redgrave and Gothard erupt with volcanic intensity. When staging an out-of-control orgy he also made sure the squad of supporting nuns—selected to bare all and do-all—were apparently body-picked from the casting convent of Our Sisters of Photogenia. Before and after the big sex riot, he details enough fiendish medieval torture for a snuff film, completing your viewing sacrifice with careening camera moves and a screaming soundtrack of dissonant music designed to rattle you into confessing.
Critics at the time were outraged, audiences repulsed. Reviews became editorials. A number of countries banned it, and extensive cuts were made (restored later). Grosses came to around $8,000,000 in Europe, with approximately $2,000,000 in the States. Time gone by, many critics now extol it, and it has a definite fan club.
Overdone, certainly; “entertainment” doesn’t leap to mind. The violence is harsh (as it would be), the orgiastic stuff bats-in-belfry material, but then so are a lot of cherished belief systems. The blood-vessel-bursting performances from Reed, Redgrave and Gothard are mesmerizing. Redgrave’s insane cackle and Gothard’s unhinged fervor contest with Reed’s seething outrage, though there are moments where it seems like he might have had a 10-pints bet going to see if he could outshout Richard Harris in Cromwell.
“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.”
With Dudley Sutton, Gemma Jones, Max Adrian, Murray Melvin, Georgina Hale, Graham Armitage, Judith Paris and a naveload of naked nuns. 117 minutes.