The Devils ★★★★½

Mysticism and occultism are two side of the same coin, and often the line between a mystic and a witch is very thin. The popularity of the Malleus Maleficarum, a medieval treatise on witches, laid the foundations for witchcraft as womanly, so perceived as intuitive and accepted that very few explanations were given as to why. But of the ones we have, they point to the permeable nature of women: the bodies of women were considered more vulnerable and open to external influence and their minds considered weak and susceptible.

But because of this women often occupied a role that few men could ever attain, that of a mystic. For these it is not a demonic possession that takes them over, but a divine one. Their "weakness" and "openness" in body and mind similarly allowed them to be inhabited by God, Jesus, and angels alike, a rapturous experience that was often a sensual one. Take this vision from Teresa of Ávila when she was visited by a seraph:

"I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it..."

This susceptibility to God paradoxically became one that lay in the sole domain of women, and as the adoration of women mystics rose in the 16th-century so too did the interference of men. Mystics cultivated followings and often occupied positions of power, and this unexpected upset of the male-dominated order politicized mysticism. Soon, many mystics were questioned whether they were really inhabited by the sacred or tricked by the profane. Their weakness allowed in God's voice, yes, but how can you prove it's not that of Satan? Of course much of this suspicion was actually rooted in politics, but nonetheless many mystics were accused of being surreptitious witches.

And so it's fascinating that Urbain Grandier, the protagonist of The Devils based off the real-life priest, was accused of demonic possession. Here is a man (read: not a woman) of great influence and of many rivals, who is blamed for driving an Ursuline convent into orgiastic furor. It's no coincidence his accusers are also his enemies, and as a modern audience we look on with frustration at just how conspicuous of a political ploy this is. Yet because this accusation is sponsored by the state, it becomes a nigh-unshakable one for Grandier. Witches are women and women are witchy, but when it's politically convenient any rule can be bent.

"I also have a maxim, father: give me three lines of a man's handwriting and I will hang him."

Ken Russell's historical horror reminds us how easily our government can construct a scapegoat, as well as how easily we're swept in that hysteria. McCarthyism is often paired up with The Crucible when taught in school, but I know I would've paid far more attention if we saw The Devils instead. The only trouble is its rare X rating but I don't think I'm alone in saying that, as a post-Internet kid, I saw a lot more fucked-up stuff.

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