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Harvard Film Archive screens Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’

Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne in “The Devils.” Warner Bros.
Director Ken Russell.getty images

In his review of the 1971 film “The Devils,” Roger Ebert wrote, “I left the theater feeling like a new, a different, and, yes, a better person. I entered the theater as an unwitting participant in the atrocities of our time. But believe me, that’s all behind me now. It took courage for me to go see ‘The Devils,’ just like it took courage for Ken Russell to make it.”

Vincent Canby had stronger thoughts, noting, bemusedly, “I was appalled by [Russell’s previous film] ‘The Music Lovers,’ and thus I can’t explain why I should have been surprised to find his approach to ‘The Devils’ to be that of a hobbyist determined to reproduce ‘The Last Supper’ in bottle tops.”

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“The Devils” screens at the Harvard Film Archive as part of its Furious Cinema ’70-’77 series on Wednesday.

The British director’s film was a hit in England and Europe, but a bust in the States, where distributor Warner Bros. did little to support its release. The studio questioned how American audiences would respond to Russell’s take on the true story of a church-state battle in 17th century France involving a randy priest, a nun’s false accusation of his seductive advances, the malicious Cardinal Richelieu, and charges of the priest consorting with Satan.

Basing his screenplay on Aldous Huxley’s 1952 nonfiction book “The Devils of Loudon” and John Whiting’s 1961 play “The Devils,” Russell created a nightmarish, no-holds-barred vision of the horrific events of 1634 in the town of Loudon.

It was named best foreign film at the 1971 Venice Film Festival, and last year the Boston Society of Film Critics honored the Coolidge Corner Theatre in the best rediscoveries category for two midnight screenings of the film.

Speaking by phone from Toronto, film critic Richard Crouse, who wrote the 2012 book “Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils,” said, “It’s a film that is about sex, about religion, about violence, and that corner in which all three of those things intersect. Good does not necessarily triumph over evil, and in that way I think Ken Russell, who was a devout Catholic, presented a story that helped him question his faith, deepen his faith, but also have a long hard look at his faith. And he did it on film, for everyone to see.”

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Russell, who died in 2011, always defended the film, saying in the 1973 book “Ken Russell: An Appalling Talent,” “ ‘The Devils’ is a harsh film — but it’s a harsh subject. I wish the people who were horrified and appalled by it had read the [Huxley] book, because the bare facts are far more horrible than anything in the film.”

So why should you see “The Devils” today? Because it’s a timeless masterpiece, as stunning and shocking and, yes, darkly funny as it was four decades ago.

The charismatic Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed at the top of his game) is a conflicted priest, very pious but with an unrelenting sexual appetite, which he regularly sates among the adoring women in town. Even the nuns at the holy order of St. Ursula have carnal thoughts about him. As he walks through Loudon’s streets in a funeral procession, one of the nuns peering through a grated window, blurts out, “He’s the most beautiful man in the world!”

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The cloister’s hunchbacked prioress, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave in a brave, unhinged performance) also finds herself sexually drawn to Grandier. Even though she’s only seen him from afar, she has sweaty fantasies, picturing him as Christ breaking free from the cross, and herself feverishly kissing the blood off his hands and chest.

The simultaneous political story involves flamboyant King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) and his power-hungry adviser Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue). It’s Richelieu who insists that it’s time for a “new France, where church and state are one,” then mutters, “and may the Protestant be driven from the land.” Richelieu’s plan includes ending the self-government of small French towns by tearing down any fortifications, including the walls surrounding Loudon.

It’s a plague year. People are dying, dead bodies are being piled, a chemist and a surgeon — the film’s black comedy relief — are free to inflict “cures” on the populace. Beautiful, recently orphaned Madeline (a fictional character played by Gemma Jones) intends to join Sister Jeanne’s order, but while confessing her sins to Grandier, falls for him. Their resulting union pushes Sister Jeanne over the edge, and she tells another priest that Grandier has been seducing her.

Are there devils present, brought on by Grandier? The king’s “special commissioner” Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) calls for Father Barré (Michael Gothard), a sadistic rock star of an exorcist, to find out. The result: graphic, sexual hysteria among nuns who frenziedly rip off their habits in scenes that led to the movie initially earning an X rating.

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Played out in front of stunning white sets designed by Derek Jarman, gorgeously photographed by David Watkin, and accompanied by a discordant, cacophonous score by Peter Maxwell Davies, the film features few moments of tender beauty and many of chaotic turmoil.

It’s a brilliant work of art, but things turn unflinchingly gruesome near the end. Even the Warner Bros. trailer that played in theaters warned, “ ‘The Devils’ is not for everyone.” Particularly the squeamish.

“The Devils” is at the Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, on March 25 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $9; seniors and non-Harvard students, $7. Information: 617-495-4700.


Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.