Cinematically, films featuring possession and the subsequent exorcism are ten-a-penny yet Federica Di Giacomo’s award-winning documentary Deliver Us [Liberami] deems to show how the ancient ritual is performed in a contemporary world. In the opening scene, which is chilling, a woman sits with her back to camera as a Priest anoints her with holy water. After he places his vestments on her head she wails and screams for the “bastard” to leave her alone and an almost secondary voice chuckles “she’s mine now.” Even if you stumbled across this documentary with little to no knowledge, it’s safe to say, this incapsulates the subject matter succinctly and effectively.
Father Cataldo Migliazzo is a sought-after Priest (and exorcist) in Palermo, people travel 150-200 km to attend his tiny Church and receive a blessing. Disturbingly, a lot seem to think they’re possessed – a child who refuses to go to school has parents who believe “a devil is inside of him”. A woman begins to cough and have, what appears to be, a panic attack and is taken into confession and, delivered from evil, and this is all before mass even begins. When it does, the “possessed” within the congregation hiss, spit and speak in tongues.
There is little doubt to these people’s beliefs, yet as they discuss what symptoms they present with, it becomes apparent that a lot can be explained away via human biology or medical tests. These vary from swearing, masturbation, seizures, drug addiction and depression to memories of child abuse. One even lists cervical pains, dizziness and exhaustion, another an unhappy marriage while one mentions schizophrenic episodes, and what could be epilepsy in a teenage girl. Yet, at no point are they directed to a medical professional – in shepherding their flock you would think that there is a duty of care. This is made all the more ridiculous (and hypocritical) when we see Cataldo’s medication spread across a table top for various ailments, right after he exorcises by telephone no less.
Unsurprisingly, almost all of those exhibiting signs of oppression are women. The patriarchal domination and control of women within the Catholic Church has almost become sacrosanct and this unspoken insinuation that women are weaker and the only ones susceptible to mental health issues leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Made all the more galling by a Father Carmine who tells a recently exorcised woman to laugh more, so to prevent another episode of oppression.
While Di Giacomo brings a neutrality to proceeding, there’s little judgement one way or the other and her film never strays into questioning faith or belief, there’s humour without ridicule and a melancholy as we follow these lost souls desperate to “cure” themselves. It is all too easy to condemn what is not understood, as ancient tradition and modern habits collide, which further plays on unnerving fear and delusion; the sacred and the profane, psychic and spiritual, disturbing and ludicrous.
However, it is in those last closing statistics which turns the fascinating (and somewhat infuriating) Liberami into a real-life horror – the increase of Priests who are now qualified to perform exorcisms within Dioceses across the world is staggering, and the indication that these numbers will continue to grow is absolutely terrifying. Federica Di Giacomo has produced a a stark work which fuses real-life with the absurd, proves that reality is more far more powerful than fiction, and leaves you with hope that all those lost souls are delivered from whatever ails them.