Titanus: The Demon
Twenty minutes into Brunello Rondi’s 1963 psychological horror film The Demon, the beautiful, troubled Purif (Daliah Lavi) runs through the southern Italian hills and stares down at her village’s church, where a huge wedding is wrapping up. Purif’s stare by itself isn’t overwhelmingly sinister or furious; it isn’t easily classified as any emotion, other than some kind of intensity. The groom is Antonio, the man she loves; the bride is the woman he left her for. According to local custom, the lifespan of the candle on the wedding altar determines the length of the couple’s marriage. As Rondi cuts back and forth between Purif and Antonio, the candle dims, until it’s barely glowing. Then the flame starts to crawl back, and Antonio and his soon-to-be-sorry bride sigh with relief—looks like they’re staying together after all.
Setting aside its suspenseful pacing and clever foreshadowing, the sequence is critical for understanding The Demon, because of the way it compares and contrasts different forms of ritual and belief. The custom of the candle is rooted in Christianity, spiced up with local superstition, while Purif’s curse on Antonio—heretical in its means and its ends—would appear to reject the church and the village with equal venom. But the most powerful magic at work here is that of the film’s editing, both its mechanics and the logic of causation it implies: when we see a woman’s face, followed by a dimming candle, it’s hard to fight the sense that the former is causing the latter by some superhuman feat, even though we know better. That Rondi conveys both kinds of ritual—the custom and the curse—by means of the same cinematic trickery, is an early clue that they’re not so very different, and an indication of what gives The Demon its emotional thrust 50 years after its release.
Rondi shows us a town obsessed with rituals, but even as we learn how arbitrary and cruel these rituals can be, we continue to feel invested in the myths that underlie them. Purif’s behavior can’t be explained by custom and superstition, but one doesn’t feel comfortable chalking it up to natural causes, either. When Antonio callously abandons her, she falls into grief and turns to spells—first trying to snuff that candle from half a mile away, then preparing a bloody potion that she tricks Antonio into drinking. Though her fellow villagers condemn Purif’s witchcraft, the habit of ritual clearly originates with them: whereas Purif mixes potions to get what she wants, the villagers lead a set of increasingly questionable ceremonies, from the attempted exorcism of Purif, whom they believe to be possessed by a demon, to an attempted human sacrifice, when they decide that her magic is warding off precious rainfall. They’re all brutal, desperate measures with unclear results.
This sense of ambiguity is unusually ambitious for a horror film; then again, ambition was never in short supply at Titanus, the great Italian studio founded by Gustavo Lombardo in 1904, whose films, The Demon included, are the subject of an ongoing two-week retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Like the Titanus executives who alternated between green-lighting weepy melodramas, sword-and-sandal epics, and screwball comedies, Rondi was comfortable working as a screenwriter and a director in an absurdly diverse collection of genres, ranging from shoestring giallos to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. He was equally adept at adding physical comedy to weighty existential pictures and suffusing lowbrow thrillers with an air of sophistication.
In The Demon, Rondi acknowledges the scope of his project with an earnest explanatory title card, announcing that the film we’re about to see is the product of years of “ethnographic research” and represents a thorough case study that can reasonably be applied to the entire world. (Beneath all the formal language, finding ways in which fiction can be said to describe or apply to reality sounds like the goal of most movies, not just The Demon.) Rondi’s film is uncommon in the horror genre, insofar as it spends so much of its running time simply recording the day-to-day (yet frequently bizarre) behaviors of a community. Throughout the Easter week during which the film plays out, the villagers are seen dragging stones that symbolize their sins. In accordance with the trappings of Italian neorealism as well as Rondi’s ethnography, children are forever scurrying around in the background. Unlike their parents, who don’t bat an eye at stoning or flagellation, they haven’t learned to respect the rituals yet.
The biggest and most devastating insight of Rondi’s case study is that Purif’s heathenism and the villagers’ piety are nearly indistinguishable, not only because they’re founded on the same logical fallacies but because they’re equally violent and bloody. In the narrowest sense, Purif is driven to mix potions because Antonio has rejected her, but she’s also a product of her society, which is to say, she’s a performer of rituals. In the film’s opening scene, she pierces her breast with a needle, rubs the blood with a rag, and burns it. It’s a disturbing display, Rondi acknowledges, but still cut from the same cloth as the church-sponsored floggings that the young men of the village must undergo every Easter. Purif first admits to feeling possessed in the midst of the year stone-carrying procession, when all loyal Christians have assembled to hear each other’s sins. It’s no coincidence that her confession arrives on the heels of the yearly floggings—Rondi underscores the arbitrariness with which Purif’s community chooses what to celebrate and what to condemn, while also suggesting that Purif may be the truest Christian of them all.
The obvious voyeurism of our introduction to Purif (a painting of a saint on the wall, positioned so that he seems to be staring straight at her breasts, signifies Rondi’s awareness of this issue but doesn’t excuse it, either), undercuts the ethnographic impartiality The Demon promises: the film doesn't just record its protagonist, it stares and occasionally leers at her. If Rondi the director has an onscreen counterpart, it must be the priest whom the town hires to exorcise Purif—a man of the cloth who’s a half doctor, half con artist and who uses the appearance of scientific impartiality to conceal his own desires. Yet if voyeurism can be found in nearly every horror film’s DNA, then Rondi deserves credit for depicting Purif’s experiences with greater sensitivity than the later filmmakers who adapted his stylistic innovations to more straightforward horror pictures. After seeing her in close-ups so frequently, we can’t help but feel a sense of kinship with her, and when Rondi shows us the world through her eyes, it’s not meant to be the terrifying “killer’s POV” of Jaws or Halloween, but a fleshed out, nuanced worldview, complete with love, sympathy, and jealousy.
In what may be The Demon’s most striking shot, Purif does the spider walk, her mouth wide open. Where William Friedkin punctuated a famous scene from <em>The Exorcist with a similarly bizarre spectacle, Rondi finds an even stranger note to end on: the sight of the church, upside-down, as Purif sees it in mid-walk. Disturbing and disorienting though the shot is (and certainly must have been in 1963), it comes almost as a relief after the crushing formality of the village Easter ceremonies. Male gazer or not, Rondi respects Purif, with the result that one welcomes her point of view instead of dreading its return.
Rondi’s abandonment of ethnography for unapologetic drama may yield The Demon’s most embarrassing moments for 21st-century audiences raised on third-wave feminism, but it’s also the source of some of its greatest pleasures. Purif is both Christ figure and Antichrist: wandering through the desert, running through wire fences that wrap around her like a crown of thorns, dying for her peers' sins, and, finally, rising from the grave via voiceover. By the same token, the film’s depiction of hysteria isn’t simply dismissible as misogynistic caricature. Daliah Lavi’s performance is great, over-the-top, and even transgressive entertainment, both because she embraces her character’s messianic overtones and, more generally, because she throws herself into the role, externalizing and magnifying Purif’s internal drama. When she jerks around in her bed mumbling the devil’s language, it’s a glorious affront to the villagers’ suffocating way of life, and, when seen in 2015, to the prevalent toned-down, pseudo-naturalistic acting style that Richard Brody memorably calls “the business-casual of contemporary cinema.” Years of research be damned—as far as the acting goes, The Demon is crowd-pleasing Titanus melodrama at its best.