Acting powerhouses Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave play the main characters, the head priest and Mother Superior (respectively) of an abbey in southern France in some pre-internet century, who cares. I say “main characters” because the words “protagonist” and “antagonist” really don’t apply here. The best thing I can say about The Devils is that it is perfectly named – no one in this film acts in any sort of admirable way, no one is likable, no one is anyone you find yourself “rooting for.” Everyone is a self-serving bastard out to achieve their own ends while begging forgiveness from their god.
The story at its core is essentially a power struggle between factions of the church. They agree on only one principle, that the Protestants suck, but otherwise there’s little unity to be found. Reed knocks up one of the nuns and then spurns her, setting into motion a garishly-presented film about demon possession, orgies, stigmata, medieval surgical procedures, church-based ideas of justice, and a solid 20-minute sequence where Reed is slowly tortured to death.
The story is simplistic, but this can be forgiven – sometimes the best films can be based on simple premises (we’ve gotta kill the man-eating shark, we’ve gotta eliminate the other Mob families and consolidate our power, we’ve gotta land this crippled plane, etc.). The problem is that Russell’s style beats us over the head for the nearly 2-hour run time. It is loud and relentless, comically shot, sloppily edited, and we aren’t given any time to breathe and get a good grasp of who these characters are and what motivates them. There’s comedy which I think is intentional, but with Russell it’s just so hard to tell. Is he a very talented amateur? Or a not-very-talented professional? I honestly can’t decide. “The Lair of the White Worm” and the other films of his I’ve seen aren’t helping with my assessment.
And in the end, what do we learn except the oft-proven adage that “all power tends to corrupt,” especially within religious circles? All this film really had to offer to audiences (of 1971 or today) is shock value – a scene of an abbey full of naked nuns in a demon-inspired orgy is…well it’s just not something you see every day, is it?
Not worth dedicating the run time to view. Maybe as background noise. Overall grade: C-