Il Demonio (1963)

Posted: November 20, 2022 in Uncategorized

Il Demonio (“The Demon”) exists at the (for me, anyway) completely unexpected intersection between Italian neorealism and Italian Gothic. It has the loose narrative structure, pointed social interest and grittily real community grounding of the former, and the intense pictorial beauty, tortured psychology, ominous score and (possibly) supernatural elements of the latter.

Daliah Lavi turns in a volcanic, brutally raw performance as a woman so obsessed with the man she wants as her husband that she places a death curse on him. Dressed in black, flitting about on clifftops and up in trees like a tormented crow, she reacts more and more wildly when he marries someone else, to the point that both she and everyone around her believe her to be possessed. Attempted exorcisms of various kinds ensue, complete with a spider-walk a full ten years before The Exorcist (and almost 40 years before that film’s sequence would be seen). And the witch hysteria spreads far and wide through the rural community.

Is Lavi’s character possessed? She is undeniably the victim of the monstrous, casual brutality of the patriarchy, whose power is magnified by its fusion with religious paranoia. She believes she is a witch, and so does everyone around her, with increasingly dire consequences. The story is undoubtedly a portrait of the terrible damage caused by this belief system. But there is also one scene that further complicates things, a moment that appears to be genuinely supernatural. It doesn’t undermine the unfolding tragedy and the excoriating critique of patriarchal violence, but it does add a fascinatingly disturbing layer of ambiguity, emphasized by a score that constantly prepares us to ancitipate the worst.

Il Demonio is part of the Severin’s All the Haunts Be Ours folk horror set, and folk horror it is, in a well-nigh anthropological sense. Almost every scene is a ritual of some kind, with any kind of distinction between magical belief and Christianity erased. The hostile, arid landscape of Southern Italy, gorgeously photographed, is a character in itself, shaping the people and their terrors, and turning every structure into a ruin-to-be, the stone walls of the houses in the process of blending back into the mountains from which they emerged.

An upsettingly beautiful film.

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