Plot: religious hysteria leads to the persecution of a libertine herbalist.
Spoken about in hushed tones of reverence by those in the know Il Demonio (or The Demon, internationally) is another example of just how revolutionary Italian cinema was during its Golden Age. Written and directed by Federico Fellini protegé Brunello Rondi Il Demonio (The Demon hereafter) is a socio-realist examination of religious mania and the oppression of patriarchal institutions in rural communities. Of how small-town superstition and religious hysteria lead to the persecution and lynching of an innocent outcast in a sleepy village in the south of Italy. There’s a distinct feminist undertone to The Demon. At every turn Purificazione is beset and besieged by men in positions in power, be they clergymen, police, or landowners. And with every fiber of her being she fights back. No wonder The Demon was deemed controversial upon release and condemned by the powers that be. What To Be Twenty (1979) was to the seventies, The Demon was to the sixties.
Brunello Rondi was an intellectual that wrote about 30 screenplays and directed 10 films himself. Gian Luigi Rondi, his brother, was a well-known and respected film critic at the time. Rondi was prone to imbue his screenplays with scathing social commentary and was critical of the church just as much as he was of the state. Rondi was the man behind Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), Boccaccio 70 (1962), 8½ (1963), Juliet Of the Spirits (1965), and Fellini Satyricon (1969). Besides Fellini, Rondi also was frequently employed in providing screenplays for Roberto Rossellini. While his directorial career was off to a flying start with the iconoclastic The Demon he quickly fell into the trap of exploitation and puerile comedy. The lowest he would sink was Black Velvet (1976), one of the many lesser derivates following the box office success of Joe D’Amato’s softcore classic Black Emanuelle (1975) with the Javanese queen of fondling, Laura Gemser. In July 1965 Rondi was interviewed in the Paese Sera newspaper by a young columnist, and film critic for various magazines, who moonlighted as a screenwriter. The young man was working with Bernardo Bertolucci on a screenplay for the Sergio Leone spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). That man was Dario Argento.
Just like The Witch (1966) three years later The Demon is a highly atmospheric slowburn of a movie that even several decades later still manages to shock. Wonderfully minimalist and with mesmerizing black and white photography it’s an indictment of religion (Christianity, in particular) and the kind of small-town superstition and callous prejudice that it breeds. The Demon was filmed during the Second Vatican Council and released mere months after the passing of Pope John XIII. No wonder then that it was condemned by the Vatican, and panned by god-fearing critics on grounds of alleged “anti-Catholic” sentiments. While thankfully reappraised in more recent times the influence of The Demon is felt to this day.
Without The Demon there wouldn’t have been Witchfinder General (1968) (and the entire Inquisition fad that followed), it was a key inspiration behind Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) (and thus was a direct influence on the nascent giallo murder mystery branch). Interestingly, future giallo specialist Luciano Martino is one of the producers and he recruited his brother Sergio as second assistant director. Finally, and perhaps more imporantly, the most memorable scenes that made William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) (based on the 1971 William Peter Blatty novel of the same name) a fright classic for the ages premiered here first. What that means is that The Demon shaped the American property that would spawn an entire cotton industry (the demonic possession subgenre) back home in Italy. The Demon has influenced so many horror subgenres in such profound ways that it’s criminal how few have actually seen it.
In a mountain village somewhere in the south of Italy lives the sexually liberated herbalist Purificazione (Daliah Lavi). Purif is madly in love with farmer Antonio (Frank Wolff) but he spurns her advances as he’s promised to another (Rossana Rovere). Desperate to be loved Purificazione reverts to elemental witchcraft to win the heart of her object of affection. Living on the outskirts of town and perrenially clad in black Puri is the talk of the town and an outcast in her own community. Antonio is married to his promised woman and Purificazione is summarily rebuffed when she tries to barge in on the wedding ceremony. Purif is a woman in love. Madly. Deeply so. She casts the evil eye upon Antonio’s matrimony in hopes that he would return to her. When a mountainside ritual to win his affections doesn’t bring the desired result she resorts to stalking his home and spooking sentries and onlookers with the cadavers of recently deceased small animals. The village sees Purif’s increasingly unhinged behavior as a threat to the communal peace. The women consider her a harlot and some of the men think she’s possessed by a demon. The town has its own spiritual traditions and customs and Purificazione sinks deeper into madness. When chants and tokens no longer keep Purif at bay, the villagers agree that drastic measures need to be taken…
On one of her amourous escapades Purificazione is raped by a shepherd and violently “exorcised” by faith healer Zio Giuseppe (Nicola Tagliacozzo). Just for the crime of being a woman in love. Tired of all the abuse Purif is taken in by a group of nuns. For a while things seem to be looking up for Purificazione, but when she inquires after the history of a tree from which a man hung himself the relationship with her hosts turns sour. The nuns line the tree with barb wire and images of the Madonna, Purificazione reacts aversely to the sight of rosary beads and is banished from the convent. In the cathedral Padre Tomasso (Giovanni Cristofanelli) compels the demon to leave her body. Instead Purif speaks in tongues, spits the priest in the face, and spiderwalks her way across the floor as increasingly frightened parishioners look on. As the superstitious villagers pray for fortunate weather and crops, Purificazione hangs out in a tree eating an apple. Then Antonio shows up that night and the two succumb to the throes of passion. At long last her wish has to come true… Now that Purificazione has the man of her dreams, the only question is: at what cost will these affections come?
And what can you really say about Daliah Lavi? She was one of the great leading ladies of the Golden Age of Italian cinema along with Rosanna Schiaffino, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, and Claudia Cardinale. She was as patrician as Barbara Steele, Helga Liné, Graziella Granata, and Amalia Fuentes – and she has done just about everything. Daliah was multi-lingual (she was fluent in Hebrew, English, German, French, Italian and Spanish) and at various points in her life Lavi was a ballet student, an Israeli soldier, and part of the international jetset as a moviestar. She received a Golden Globe for most promising newcomer for Two Weeks In Another Town (1962) and starred in the Mario Bava giallo The Whip and the Body (1963). She was in the Karl May adaptation Old Shatterhand (1964) (from Hugo Fregonese) and in the spoof Casino Royale (1967) as well as the Bulldog Drummond spycaper Some Girls Do (1969) with Richard Johnson. Lavi acted in serious productions as well as a fair amount of pulp, and when her acting career winded down she reinvented herself as a pop singer. With help from Jimmy Bowien, the man at Polydor, Lavi enjoyed success in Germany – and the man who had discovered The Beatles and produced The Monks, Olivia Newton-John and Georges Moustaki had provided her with the platform that she could do more than just act.
Not to belabor the point any more than necessary but Hollywood always was, is, and continues to be, behind on European cinema. This especially rang true in the sixties and seventies when countries like Germany, France, and East-Europe (especially Russia and Czechslovakia) were responsible for some of the most revolutionary works in cinema. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) will forever remain, and be remembered as, an undiluted classic of American horror cinema, but there’s no denying that it loses some of its luster with the knowledge that some of its more memorable scenes were seen here first. If you know where to look shades of both The Demon and The Witch (1966) can be seen in Anna Biller’s retro nouveau masterpiece The Love Witch (2016) and Samantha Robinson is at least as beguiling as Daliah Lavi and/or Rosanna Schiaffino. Anybody with even the slightest and passing historical interest in continental European horror cinema has no excuse not to seek out The Demon. Since this came from a different time the horror is frequently more implied than shown. The Demon was a tipping point in Italian horror cinema and pivotal in the development of the genre. I Vampiri (1957) was the first Italian horror film of the sound era, and during the gothic horror craze of the sixties The Demon offered a more measured and realistic alternative.