Synopsis: Purif (Daliah Lavi) is a young woman who, after having her amorous advances rejected by a young man in her town (Frank Wolff), resorts to curses and witchcraft to try and win him over. When the townsfolk realize what she is doing everything untoward that happens is blamed on her - a little boy dies, bad weather etc. Soon they have her pegged as being possessed by a demon and an exorcism is carried out in the local church.
It was Kelly who first stumbled upon this film when she was doing research for our Exorcising the Feminine episode where we focused on demonic possession back in October. Knowing I would be interested in watching it, she forwarded it my way, and I watched it that very day. I wanted to write about this film back then, but instead I decided to hold onto this little gem for our horror in the 1960s month. And now, here we are.
Il Demonio was directed by little known Italian director Brunello Rondi starring the beautiful Israeli actress, singer, and model Daliah Lavi, who also appeared in Maria Bava’s gothic classic The Whip and the Body (1963). When it was released in 1963 it was considered a controversial film due to its themes of witchcraft, demonic possession, and the negative portrayal of superstitious Catholics. It was so controversial that the Vatican condemned the film for what it believed had ‘anti-Catholic sentiments’. For being a controversial and little known film of its time, you can see how elements of Il Demonio have gone on to impact themes in the horror genre. In a review written by the site Least Worst Opinion, they talk about how this film went on to impact Witchfinder General (1968), Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and The Exorcist (1978). And I know you are wondering how could this unknown film impact a cult classic like The Exorcist? Well, if you really want to see a terrifying spider walk scene, watch this film. It will give you chills.
Il Demonio, done beautifully in back and white, opens on a farm segregated from the village community, Lucania, in Southern Italy. Italy is a country that is known to be predominantly Roman Catholic due to the Vatican being at the heart of Rome. It is known as the hub of Catholicism and Christianity as these religions make up 80% of the population. So as we are introduced to Purificanzione (Puri), her acts of witchcraft are highlighted strikingly against the heavily religious environment and symbolism. We watch this beautiful dark-haired young woman pricking her breast and combining her blood with her hair early in the morning, this spell casting is highlighted by the number of religious symbols surrounding her like images of Saints and crosses above her bed. This opening foreshadows the struggles Puri will have to face as she secretly hides what would be considered evil/black magic from a religious family and community. Throughout Il Demonio, we see how Puri and religious figures interact with her life from love, disdain, hatred, forgiveness, sadness, abuse, and inevitably, death.
Puri is a woman in love. She is an unconventional woman as she is not demure or virtuous; she is a passionate woman who declares her love for the farmer Antonio and when he rejects her she casts a love spell on him. Like Eliane in The Love Witch (2016), Puri is possessed and driven mad by her love and desire for Antonio who continuously denies her. Just like Eliane, she bewitches him and tells him that her power will make him want her. However, for Antonio, a ‘pious’ man, Puri is too wild and independent for him. As she runs freely through the woods and fields with her hair blowing around her wearing a revealing black dress,Antonio is arranged to be married to a religious woman who dresses in modest clothing and wears her hair tightly up in a bun as she is sewing( performing women’s work). To Antonio, Puri is a devil woman who he would fantasize about but would never marry for it would harm his reputation and status within the community. To him and others, Puri is a woman possessed by magic and thus possessed by the devil.
This is where the film moves from the narrative of a woman using witchcraft to have a man fall in love with her, to a woman possessed by a demon and in need of an exorcism. In early writings about witchcraft, it was believed that witches were in league with, or servants of, Satan. And that once a witch had given her soul to him, she was beyond saving and often executed. However, it was also a known practice that women who were discovered to have been possessed by a demon could be saved. That is, if she survived the exorcism. Due to the intensity of the exorcism and the physical and mental strain it placed upon the victim, many didn’t survive. After being beaten by her father, accused of cursing Antonio’s firstborn child on the night of his wedding, and then being raped by a sheepherder, Puri believes the only way to save herself is by declaring publicly that she is possessed by a demon as that would explain her erratic behaviour.
Puri’s trials are far from over, as she is raped again by the local village priest who is tasked with cleansing her of her demons. We then watch a scene of Puri in bed, almost reliving the rapes she has experienced, in the form of demonic possession as she becomes paralyzed, scratched, and beaten. Her family, in turmoil over their daughter’s condition, takes her to the Church where another exorcism is performed. This is the scene that you know inspired The Exorcist, with Puri contorting her body to perform a spider walk down the Church aisle -- she growls and speaks in tongues. This scene is in silence and is truly disturbing, especially as you watch the religious bystanders stand and cross themselves in horror and shock. However, after an incident at a Passover ritual where it is believed Puri somehow influenced the weather, she is driven away by an angry mob from the safety of her home. Because of course, since she did not conform to being a proper woman after her exorcism, her instability was still considered a threat to their community.
Puri’s unconventional independence is never accepted. Even in the safety of nuns, she is judged and viewed upon with suspicion by the sisters. They want her gone not only because she will not subject herself to their demands or religious ideals, but out of fear. When she is discovered to have some sort of psychic ability (she senses something wrong around a tree where a young boy hanged himself) she is cast out by the Mother Superior because what she could see and hear is considered an abomination. And like all other religious authorities before her, the Mother Superior tells Puri that she must obey and submit herself to the Church if she is to be saved and be ‘normal”.
In her determination and supposed ‘love’ for Antonio, Puri leaves the convent to find him. Whereas Antonio, feeling plagued by Puri’s obsession, decides to free himself from what he believed to be a witch’s curse, and he seeks her out to put an end to it all. At the end of Il Demonio, after saving Puri from another angry mob and having sex with her, Antonio kills her in “Christ’s Name”. The end of the film makes it look like that his act of murder was Puri’s salvation when in reality it was just his way of ridding himself of a problematic woman that was making life difficult for him and the village.
Il Demonio goes back and forth from the witch and possession narrative in regards to Puri’s story, but ultimately it looks at how overtly superstitious and hyper-religious communities are more dangerous than the evil they supposedly see in Puri. I highly recommend this film as it displays the difficult choices that were faced by unconventional women of the time period. It shows the danger that women who were either strongly opinionated, sensitive, passionate and self sufficient faced in heavily religious and patriarchal communities. This then made her believe that her only route to salvation was to claim “demonic possession” and seek help. Sadly, this was historically known as something women of the time period had to do to either protect themselves, change their status in life or find the help that they needed to survive. As you watch Il Demonio ask yourself if Puri is insane or was she driven to insanity by her community that placed her life in danger by calling her a witch?