In 17th-century France, Father Urbain Grandier seeks to protect the city of Loudun from the corrupt establishment of Cardinal Richelieu. Hysteria occurs within the city when he is accused of witchcraft by a sexually repressed nun.
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Cardinal Richelieu and his power-hungry entourage seek to take control of seventeenth-century France, but need to destroy Father Grandier - the priest who runs the fortified town that prevents them from exerting total control. So they seek to destroy him by setting him up as a warlock in control of a devil-possessed nunnery, the mother superior of which is sexually obsessed by him. A mad witch-hunter is brought in to gather evidence against the priest, ready for the big trial. Written by
Subject of an online petition to persuade Warner Bros. to release the movie as a DVD, something the company was reluctant to do, apparently because of its controversial nature. The campaign was ultimately successful with the re-release on DVD, by the BFI, of the 1971 UK X-rated cut of the film. See more »
Early in the movie when Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) is seen grooming his hair. It is a close-up of him supposedly looking at a mirror in the upper left hand corner of the screen, behind the viewer. Obviously there is no mirror as he consistently misses combing the more egregiously messed up parts of his hair and instead repeatedly combs the portions that are already groomed. In fact when he is done, his hair is still messed up. See more »
[after having Grandier dragged through the streets following his torture, they arrive at the Convent where Grandier is to beg forgiveness]
What is this place?
The Convent of St Ursulla, a place you have defiled. Do what must be done.
[he tips Gradier off the stretcher he is on]
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When reading the following review, please keep in mind that I saw this film in slightly unorthodox circumstances. Without meaning to sound smug, the screening I attended took place at my University, was chaired by Ken Russell and was of a restored version of The Devils. The missing footage found by the critic Mark Kermode had been spliced back in and the film restored to the director's vision as close as possible. Given that I've never seen the original edit released to cinemas back in the 1970s and that this was only the second time this version had been screened, I think its fair to estimate that the film I'm reviewing will be significantly different to the one that is widely available so please keep that in mind.
Anyway...starting with a bizarre sequence involving an androgynous, foppish King prancing around a theatre stage done up like an Egyptian Queen, Ken Russell's The Devils is a film that over the course of its subsequent hour and forty minutes is liable to offend as many people as it will entertain. The extravagance of the Royal French Court filled with laughing nobles and brown nosing politicians resplendent in the very finest dark ages fashion is soon juxtaposed when the film turns a stark gaze on a rotting countryside filled with pestilence and disease. Maggot infested corpses line the road and the attention is quickly turned on the town of Loudun, where Priest Father Grandier battles not only the plague, but the political schemers who want to demolish the walls. Grandier is such a charismatic public figure however that the politicians are powerless, until they elaborate a plan to have him tarnished with accusations of blasphemy.
Central to this conspiracy is a chapter of Nuns living near by, of whom the hunched Sister Jeanne proves instrumental. Scared of her own sexual desires, the woman is driven mad by her very human nature and soon, the inquisition are knocking on her door and every woman in the building is being tortured and brain washed in the name of Christianity. The evils of religious fanaticism are plain to see, with Michael Gothard's scene stealing extremist Father Barre being the most disgusting example of a Priest you are ever likely to see on film. He batters and humiliates women for the sake of getting his own way and is so inflexible that he will send people to their deaths rather than admit his own fallibility. Controversial scenes abound as Barre's determination brings about nothing but misery, with the brainwashed nuns stripping off and indulging in a mass orgy, culminating in perhaps the most offensive scene when a statue of Christ is pulled down from the chapel walls and used by the nuns as a sexual play thing.
While it may depict blasphemy though, the film itself is not blasphemous and believe it or not, actually celebrates Christianity. It does so through the figure of Grandier (Oliver Reed at his very best), a man whose faith in God is so strong that he will not allow the misled elders of the Church deviate him from his path. He isn't a perfect man and has a weakness for the fairer sex, but he will not bow down to pressure or allow physical pain to weaken his love of God, he is a fine depiction of a Priest of which the Church can be proud.
However, religious sermonising isn't the chief attraction because let's face it, the reason most of us would want to see this movie is because it's controversial. With the aforementioned cavorting on the cross and nun orgies it's not hard to see why and the Inquisition don't exactly come off particularly well either as they stride around the countryside, bullying and torturing and ultimately teaching their flock to hate, not to love. Furthermore, The Devils is possessed (pun very much intended) by a ceaseless, madcap energy that is easy to get swept up in and over the course of the film, you will witness flagellation, nun on nun lesbian action, deranged inquisitors chanting "confess" as they beat people with hammers and (perhaps most bizarrely of all), Oliver Reed duelling with a man using a stuffed crocodile in place of a sword.
Yes, it is a bit uneasy to watch sometimes. Yes, at times it does resemble little more than visual extremity taken to the limit and no its not likely to find it's way into the Pope's DVD collection any time soon. The underlying message is ultimately a pure one though and it has the added benefit of being one of the most insane films you're ever likely to see, as well as making you glad you don't live in the middle ages. If you ever get a chance to see the restored version I couldn't recommend it higher.
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