The Devils is a 1971 British historical drama film written and directed by Ken Russell and starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave. The Devils is probably one of the best socio-political commentaries, a biting satire of the excesses of religion and politics. While presented in a disturbing, visceral, sexually graphic manner that sometimes overshadows the message underneath, the power of its narrative remains undiminished almost half a century later.
The film is a dramatised historical account of the rise and fall of Urbain Grandier (Reed), a 17th-century Roman Catholic priest accused of witchcraft following the alleged demonic possessions in Loudun, France; it also focuses on Sister Jeanne des Anges (Redgrave), a sexually repressed hunchbacked nun who provides the impetus for these allegations against Grandier. Grandier is a carnal priest – having bedded several young women in his care – and before the witchcraft accusations marries himself to Madeleine De Brou (Gemma Jones), a clear violation of his priestly vow of celibacy.
Of course, the fact of the matter is that these allegations against Grandier are purely politically driven, as a means of ultimately destroying the city of Loudon, of which Grandier has been placed in charge of in the wake of the governor’s demise. These machinations are to be seen against the backdrop of the conflict between Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation.
As mentioned before, The Devils is best known for the copious nudity and depravity being depicted on screen – its purpose being to shock and disturb but also to demonstrate a semblance of the reality that occurred historically. Undoubtedly exaggerated this might be but once perceived as a satire, writer-director Russell’s ambitious vision is crystal clear.
More than that, The Devils continue to be relevant 50 years later as religion and politics continue to be dangerous bedfellows, distorting the truth for nefarious ends. Prime example being the whole Trump, Republican and Evangelical travesty that continues to hold sway over millions of Americans!
Seen through that lens, then Russell’s misunderstood film is a masterpiece. One of the best films about religious abuse ever made (though Russell himself, a devout Catholic, deemed it a purely political one). Highly recommended.
… still there’s more …