Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) is a fictionalized account of the 17th-century Roman Catholic priest Urbain Grandier, tried and executed in Loudon, France. Questioning the authority of the Catholic Church is a controversial provocation at any time, but consider: if today, a sober movie like Spotlight (2015) is viewed as brave, then the The Devils’ depiction of the historical Church as depraved, sex-obsessed, and corrupt must have really rankled in 1971. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a company like Warner Bros. producing anything remotely like The Devils in our current climate of resurgent Christian intolerance and fundamentalism.
Hard to find in any form, Filmstruck had what was apparently the abbreviated 109-minute US release version. I think it was part of the Warner Bros. / Turner library, and considering its still-controversial aspects, it’s probably unlikely it will reappear on Warner Bros.’ forthcoming streaming service. Perhaps it could find a home with a boutique outlet like The Criterion Collection, which has been unafraid to release other hot potatoes like The Last Temptation of Christ and Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom.
If possible to set its subject matter aside, it’s also a pity The Devils has been suppressed, for it is a lavish production with truly massive outdoor sets and if not literally a cast of thousands, then at least a cast of several hundred.
Thanks to the late, lamented Filmstruck for filling another gap in my understanding of cinema history. A helpful reminder to young and old film fans approaching cinema history in non-chronological order: nothing comes out of nowhere. I had long assumed Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and The Life of Brian to be landmark satires of de-romanticized European history as crazed, filthy, ignorant, superstitious, and chaotic. But belatedly seeing The Devils now, Gilliam looks less a sudden deviation, and more part of a continuum.
I know I am not alone in Gilliam being one of the gateway drugs that sparked a love of movies — the usual suspects usually being 1970s American directors like Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, etc. I’ve since come to recognize the influences that led to so many other classics, but it’s great to know that even now, having caught up with thousands of other movies, I can still be surprised.