A suppressed masterpiece, Ken Russell’s own cut of his legendarily controversial film The Devils remains difficult to track down. So when livewithfilm saw that the BFI was screening it – potentially for the third time in the film’s history – this blogger jumped at the chance to revel in the madness.
With a plot oddly pertinent to the stringent cuts and bans the film endured, The Devils perfectly realises and confronts systems of repressive power, namely the state and religion. In an unparalleled performance of both force and subtly, Oliver Reed’s Grandier is the priest that garners the malice of scheming French royals. With the state keen to tear down the walls of his city, Grandier is accused of being in league with Satan – having supposedly possessed the local nunnery and its lusty superior Sister Jeanne.
Creating an awe inspiringly wide vision, the film at once recalls the scope of Cecil B. Demille and the hedonistic excesses that remained Russell’s own hallmark. The fate of Grandier positions religious orders as puppets of state control. Manipulated to rid the French king of this turbulent priest, the Christian order’s swift descent upon its wayward brethren only serves to prove its own hollowness.
Yet Russell intriguingly doesn’t position such claims as the simple answer. Grandier retains a form of faith, creating the implication that individual belief remains untainted in the face of an established religion at the beck and call of political figures.
Russell is in complete control of his grand vision, consistently managing to instil the feeling of complete disorder while retaining form and momentum. Matching exquisitely composed visuals with unsurpassable performances from both Reed and Redgrave as Sister Jeanne, The Devils is essential cinema.
The time has come Warner Brothers, release this unedited – and crucial – cut.