Fantastic Fest 2012 Review: THE EXORCIST IN THE 21ST CENTURY

The recent surge in occult horror films, particularly those involving demonic possession is hardly a new thing. Such surges are often followed by sensationalistic documentaries that purport to get behind the real life history and mystery of possession events or trace the history of the devil and devil worship. Sadly such stuff is usually made to make a fast buck off peoples fears, or worse an attempt at manipulatively steering beliefs. But every once in a while someone makes a doc that gets under the skin of more than just viewers who are generally speaking, a tad freaked out already. The Exorcist in the 21st Century is an aptly named Norwegian doc that is certainly disturbing but hardly definitive for those who want to see unexplainable paranormal type activity as final proof of the existence of the devil or demons.

There are exorcisms here but they are performed in decidedly simple fashion. Whether or not the viewer already believes in such phenomena will probably guide their interpretation more than anything else. But the character study provided here, of the various clergy who perform these rites in the Catholic Church is absolutely fascinating. Filmmakers Fredrik Horn Akselsen and Christian Falch clearly want to remain objective and while the priests and scholars interviewed come off, at times, as culturally out of touch, they also do their best to lay out the case for what they do. None of them come off as publicity mongering, or particularly interested in anything except helping their troubled congregants find much needed peace.

In fact if anything definitively eerie emerges it has to do with the nature of evil itself which manifests itself through those who wish to be exorcised in deep psychological torments. At one point a priest demands that the demon be gone to which the demon replies, "She hates her father for neglecting her. Until she forgives him I will never come out." The problem for these people is the need to believe that they can be free. The clergy in the film make a compelling case for why God forms the basis for any freedom at all and how man on his own could never be free of temptation.

There could have been some time spent here with the skeptics but the film is more interested in talking with the exorcists about their work than in putting together a case for their needed existence. Some will find fault with that and no doubt a great documentary could be made about the odder than odd world of satanic panic that exists within the Christian church despite decades of exposure of fraudulent testimonies of those claiming to have been high level Satanists or occult practitioners. In the end a surprisingly winsome, humble, and compassionate portrait emerges of men who have long toiled under the baleful eye of even those in their own church bodies. Though one priest in particular is treated by mass audiences who clamor for a touch or an autograph, he never seems to milk such opportunities or anything except the chance to quietly do what he does, ignoring the white noise around him, in the hopes of praying simple prayers, offering thanks and celebrating with those who've been blessed.

The Exorcist in the 21st Century doesn't contextualize these men against the skeptical times they live in which is somewhat of a problem given the title. But it does showcase the good that can come out of ritual, and the need for humankind to look for solutions outside the natural world for help in confronting evil within and without themselves. This is a film best watched with a bit of introspection. 
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