If there were a prize for world’s most controversial film, a top contender would certainly be The Devils, Ken Russell’s scathing look at the abuse of power by the French 17th-century Catholic church. We are living in an age where Blu-Rays of I Spit On Your Grave and Cannibal Holocaust can be purchased by anyone at the click of a button, but a complete release of The Devils remains conspicuously absent despite desperate efforts from many people — including Russell himself until his death in 2011 — to make it available.
Ken Russell has been considered a provocateur, and The Devils has been considered exploitation. Many have gone as far as to label the film a shining example of the subgenre known as “nunsploitation.” That sub-genre enjoyed some popularity in the ’70s and ’80s and was infamous for depictions of nuns and priests either behaving badly or being the victims of the naughty behaviors of their superiors. While The Devils arguably deserves a place in any discussion of films that depict such material, to label it as strictly nunsploitation misses the point by a rather large margin. To understand why, the term “exploitation” must be properly defined.
Exploitation has an elusive definition because artists, including Ken Russell, have manipulated its conventions to make statements through their craft — a phenomenon that alters the very idea of exploitation. As it is rudimentarily understood, however, an exploitation film could be defined as the depiction of sensationalist and provocative material with the express intent of cashing in on the base morbid curiosities of the buying public. Many exploitation films fit that definition quite nicely; others have dared to defy it. The Devils did the latter, and unfortunately the film and its director paid rather dearly for it.
If there were an award for most sensitive topic, then religion would certainly be a top contender, and politics would not be far off. Russell chose to tackle both in one film, and he pulled no punches. Indeed, he used some brass knuckles on what he called his “only political film.” The story concerns the scapegoating of a flawed but respected priest named Grandier (Oliver Reed) who is the interim governor of the French town of Loudun. Cardinal Richelieu, who has ambitious plans for France, sees Grandier as an obstacle to his plans, and takes advantage of some local scandals to get him tried for witchcraft.
The cinematography and art direction are exemplary, the performances involve you in the lives of the characters, and the anachronistic use of music serves to enhance the madness on display. It is a truly masterful film. While many actual exploitation (or nunsploitation) films were able to find audiences and profits by flying under the radar and playing in disreputable theaters, The Devils — with its high profile, Oscar-nominated director — suffered severe cuts and censorship that have lasted over 40 years and remain in place as of this writing. The lack of availability has relegated it to an obscurity greater than that of films created by the most underground of filmmakers.
Why is this? Was Russell’s indictment of the Catholic church so vitriolic that it reduced its producers to quivering shame? Upon scrutiny, the answer is no. While the director was certainly not beyond making such indictments, The Devils is not critical of religion, religious symbols, or the people who practice their faith. It is instead an examination of what happens when those in power choose to abuse it, based on actual historical events that have been written about and performed in other media. The Devils simply chooses to explore the consequences of hubris and ambition thoroughly, bluntly, and in full visual detail.
The images in The Devils were considered so inflammatory that the studio and the censors couldn’t, or chose not to, see the heart of the messages they conveyed. This reaction was mirrored by much of the critical consensus of the time, which refused to understand that the film could deliver much more than sadistic joy for maladjusted people. Exploitation, in other words. If the definition of “exploitation” could be altered to include films that exploit human fears, vices, and squeamishness in order to provide a stark and sometimes disturbing mirror of human nature, then The Devils would absolutely be an exploitation film.
A rare screening of the UK X-rated version of The Devils will screen for one night only in San Diego on Saturday, January 25th at the Digital Gym Cinema on 2921 El Cajon Blvd. (Full disclosure: reviewer Miguel Rodriguez is one of the programmers for The Film Geeks, which screens unique and fringe film at the Digital Gym Cinema, and is hosting this screening.)