I’m not used to considering documentary films in the context of genre unless they’re explicitly about the art of filmmaking. But the programmers of Fantasia International Film Festival provided an interesting challenge by including Federica di Giacomo’s Libera Nos (Deliver Us) as a part of their “Documentaries from the Edge” selection. In style, tone and feeling, this nonfiction work might feel out of place among ghosts, zombies and vampires. (Yes, that’s an oversimplification of a genre film festival — just go with it for a bit.)
The subject of Libera Nos, however, might make for a natural fit within Fantasia’s lineup. In contemporary Italy, various afflicted individuals find their way into the annals of the Catholic Church to have priests rid them of their inner demons through the ritual of exorcism. Spiritual terror is, of course, one of the oldest genres on earth, far predating modern strains of social fears stemming from modernization, mechanization and more ills.
Despite the match in content to films like The Exorcist or any of its uninspired spawn, Libera Nos dares not conjure up such supernatural worlds. Di Giacomo does not even hint at them. Her documentary is studiously rooted in the real, observable pains of the supplicants praying for release. Di Giacomo fixates on the physical processes of faith, those involuntary twitches and convulsions that make exorcism a phenomenon of the terrestrial world rather than a spiritual one.
While full neutrality in non-fiction film is never fully possible, Di Giacomo’s roving camera (masterfully overseen by directors of photography Greta de Lazzaris and Carlo Sisalli) always finds some grounding element in each setting. They latch on to hands, to artwork on the wall, to objects of faith. Di Giacomo knows her limits. Deliver Us can only show viewers an observable reality, and while all the participants being filmed at least hold out some belief in an existence apart from our own, no camera can capture that. Di Giacomo neither implies it nor grants permission to any talking heads for explanations. She simply presents what she sees and allows viewers to make their own judgments.
That’s only possible by projecting one’s thoughts, ideas and beliefs onto the film. Otherwise, Deliver Us represents a chronicle of an ethereal occurrence from a worldly point of view. I’ll admit to being a religious person myself, albeit not the kind who believes in a mystical, faith healing type of worship. While I’d love to believe that miracles are still possible, my rational side often prevailed during Libera Nos — especially after a woman seeking exorcism copped to displaying symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
Libera Nos doesn’t feel like a puzzle meant to be solved, though. The impetus to piece together conclusions takes place strictly on the audience’s end. Di Giacomo does not sequence her film as if she’s building a case for or against anyone she depicts. (This might account for the occasional narrative lull.) She’s simply documenting the rise in Italians seeking religiously steeped solutions to physical and psychological maladies at a time when medicine and treatment for both are strong as ever. If anyone ever decided to make a fictional adaptation of this documentary, the characters would resemble one of Martin Scorsese’s tortured Catholics far more than any archetype from a low-budget studio horror flick. It’s an unconventional perspective, making Libera Nos a riveting new lens on a familiar topic.
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