Russell depicts Grandier (played by his go-to bulldog Oliver Reed, practicing more restraint than usual) as a lusty breaker of celibacy vows, but also as a man of true conviction compared to the hypocritical displays of faith, morality, and community-mindedness around him. Mother Superior Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave as you've definitely never seen her before) is a hunchback lost in fantasy and spite, having like many of her wards not chosen this vocation, but instead been abandoned to it — back then, well-born females whose family didn't have enough dowry money to marry them off were forcibly "married" to Jesus instead.
The Devils is a fevered nightmare, unrelentingly grotesque and claustrophobic. (Russell had the inspiration of hiring Derek Jarman as his production designer — not yet a director himself, the latter devised studio bound, abstract monochrome sets more vividly oppressive than any actual historic sites could have been.) It had to be heavily cut even before getting slapped with an X rating in the U.S., excised sequences like a mad convent orgy dubbed "The Rape of Christ" assumed lost until their re-discovery a decade ago. In England the film was banned from several districts. Nearly everywhere, critical response was bilious — reviewers felt violated, polluted, disgusted. The L.A. Times called it "a degenerate and despicable work of art," others "pornographic" and "Satanic" outright.
Those gag reflexes were understandable. The Devils is flawed, mostly in its crudely satirical aspects. And its scalding majority impact is achieved in a hyperbolic manner that makes it very hard to separate the depiction of blasphemy from the embodiment of it. Yowling "I want to shock people into awareness. I don't believe there's any virtue in understatement!" to Time magazine that year, Russell cared little about clarifying that distinction.
A visual statement as singularly alarming as any canvas by Bosch or Bacon, its disturbance further heightened by avant-garde composer Peter Maxwell Davies' striking score, The Devils would doubtless be more highly regarded today had it been one isolated case of delirium in an otherwise relatively sane director's oeuvre. But the baroque excesses Russell flaunted under any circumstance, no matter how apt, made it seem just more of his reliable too muchness. The neglect his work has fallen into benefits this most serious of his features, as it allows The Devils to be seen clearly as a caterwaul of horror — not at supernatural possession but at the infinite human cruelty power and sanctimony can allow.
Thursday, Feb. 23, 8 p.m. (double-feature with Privilege, 1968), $7 donation
1082 Howard, SF
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