Ken Russell’s The Devils was one of the most controversial movies of the 1970s, and its power to shock has been diminished by time. Russell was often accused of setting out to shock just for the sake of shocking, which I think is nonsense. His purpose in this movie was extremely serious. It’s a very angry movie, the anger being directed at those who mix religion and politics, and use religion for corrupt and dishonest and mercenary purposes, and those who use religion to destroy those who stand in the path of their pursuit of power.
The movie is based on real events in the city of Loudon in 1634. A popular priest who had made powerful enemies was accused of bewitching the nuns in a Ursuline convent. Oliver Reed gives the performance of his career as the priest, Father Urbain Grandier. Vanessa Redgrave is truly terrifying as the Mother Superior of the convent whose sexual frustration overpowers her and leads her to actions with horrifying consequences. The sets, designed by Derek Jarman, are quite simply superb, and the combination of Russell’s extraordinary visual imagination with Jarman’s is electrifying. The impact of the film comes largely from the images – this is a very cinematic film. It’s a powerful film, and it’s a very great film.