Director: Jacobo Martinez (Spain). Year of Release: 2022
The opening credits inform us that 13 priests in Spain are still authorized to carry out exorcisms. Before getting down to work, though, the Vatican must confirm that the subjects really are possessed. If your mind works the way mine does, you immediately wonder why we are being told this. Is this a film which is setting out its stall by assuring us that exorcism is still A Thing, or is it preparing us for a prolonged laugh at the superstitious Papists?
Laura is 17, and a member of a highly religious family. They spend a lot of time thanking God before every meal, Laura’s room contains a frankly scary 4 foot statue of the BVM, and even her brother is called Jesus. It’s Halowe’en, and Laura wants to join her friend Mireia at a party, but her mother tells he she has to stay home. After all, she’s got to go to the cemetery tomorrow morning, before All Saints Day mass. Also Halowe’en is ever so slightly ungodly.
Laura sneaks off, and Mireia takes her to a dark building where they meet some boys. Mireia gets off with one of them, saying that if people are damned to hell for their sins, she’ll be the first to go. Laura is less far down the road to damnation than her friend, and wavers when the other boy first offers her alcohol and drugs, then lunges for her. But after her initial trepidation, she starts to get interested – just as Mireia returns with her conquest.
They tell Laura the story of the house. It used to be the home of a doctor, until he killed his wife, then hanged his 3 daughters on the balcony for everyone to see. This is a great segue into someone having the idea that they have a séance. Once more, Laura is scared by the idea. Once more, she ultimately joins in. Everything is going – a little boringly, really, with no spirits responding to being summoned – until Laura goes missing then slumps to the ground, in a state of exaltation.
We all know where this is going, don’t we? Even without the opening credits, the film’s title gives it away somewhat. So it is to the director’s credit that we are halfway through before a priest starts throwing holy water around. Before that, Laura is dumped on her parents’ doorstep, then has a series of nasty experiences, where it becomes clear that the devil is following her. To make everything more eerie, each incident is preceded by the same sinister whistling.
It is one of the film’s strengths that – so far at least, it leaves it open whether Laura’s problems are psychological or the result of demonic possession. Laura goes into the confessional booth to confess her sins, only to find that her Confessor is Lucifer. Stigmata appear on her arms in the shame of the words “WHORE” and “BITCH”. She escapes to the school toilets where someone – something – tries to break down the door. In each case, she is essentially alone.
We view each of these scenes entirely through Laura’s POV. Although on one level, these things are definitely happening, we do not know whether anyone else shares Laura’s visions. Indeed, when Laura in a frenzy attacks one of her teachers, she is introduced to Lola, the school psychiatrist, and a devout atheist. Lola is convinced that Laura’s experiences are merely manifestations of her guilty imagination, and the film does not (yer) let us know whether it’s on Team Lola or Team Pope.
Actually, all the hints are that the Catholic Church bears a major responsibility for Laura being how she is. Laura is made to feel guilty for everything – in one scene a devout neighbour takes her aside and asks her if she believes that Jesus will redeem her. Make no mistake, the neighbour continues, Jesus will only redeem the devout. Everyone else is damned to endless hell. Laura’s guilt is compounded by the fact that one brother is seriously disabled and the other died when he was 8.
So far, so good. And then comes the priest. It just so happens that one of the 13 priests allowed to perform exorcisms has just moved into the neighbourhood, and he’s ready for action. The film tries to continue the openness which does not want to tell us whether Laura really is possessed, but from now on, we witness her travails, not just through her eyes, but from those of her family and attendant clergy. What was once possibly hypothesis now seems to be established fact.
There is another problem that 13 Exorcisms is unable to get around. In the 50 years since the original Exorcist film, there have been so many sequels and parodies that nothing is surprizing. Indeed, there is a decent argument that whereas the original film worked – precisely because it was showing us something entirely new – nothing that came afterwards could possibly have the same impact.
So, we experience scenes which are at best hommage, but really pale reproductions of what we already know from other, better, films. The scenes which theoretically should have been the most gripping – those of a greying priest trying to confront the devil which has taken over Laura’s body – are, in the execution, the most clichéd. We’ve seen it all before, and, to be fair to the film’s makers, it would be very difficult to conjure up anything particularly new and distinctive.
Remember those opening credits, when it wasn’t clear whether the film was on the side of science or superstition? Well, the end credits confess that it was a fudge. They say that, based on the fact that the Papal exorcists really exist, the writers of this film created a fiction. I don’t want to know this. Unless this is a work of Brechtian alienation or (God help us) knowing irony, it does no-one any favours to remind us that this is all made up. Let us try to believe in what we are watching.
This is a film which us often engaging, and starts to pose a number of interesting questions about religion and psychological self-delusion, but is ultimately too timid to take them to their conclusion. Worth seeing, but could have been better.