By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) - William Friedkin, director of the 1973 classic film "The Exorcist", is dealing with the devil again but don't expect more twisting heads, levitating beds or spurts of green vomit.
That was fiction. This time, it's the real thing with no special effects but it is nonetheless harrowing.
Friedkin has made an hour-long documentary called "The Devil and Father Amorth" about perhaps the world's most famous exorcist, Gabriele Amorth, an Italian priest who died in 2016 at the age of 91.
"Some people will see this and be skeptical. I'm not a skeptic," Friedkin, 83, said in a telephone interview ahead of the release of the documentary in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.
Friedkin struck up a friendship with Amorth, a disarmingly jovial man despite his serious work.
"We had hours of conversations about religious matters, the New Testament and about the case he was working on," said Friedkin, who was raised in a Jewish family in Chicago.
"I found him to be the most spiritual man I ever met."
On May 1, 2016, about four months before Amorth died, he allowed Friedkin to watch an exorcism of a 46-year-old Italian woman, on condition that he did it without a crew, used only a small camera and did not interfere with the rite.
It takes up the bulk of the documentary, which also includes interviews with psychologists.
"My terror of what I was witnessing turned into empathy for the pain she was experiencing," Friedkin said.
The footage shows the woman being held down by Amorth's assistants. She writhes and shouts in a raspy voice that is not hers. Amorth, who had a cult-like following in Italy, performs the rite in Latin and Italian as others, known as "auxiliary exorcists," give him prayerful support in the room.
"I witnessed a complete transformation of personality and a woman who had strength way beyond her physical capabilities at the age of 46 and she had a complete transformation of the way she spoke and sounded," he said.
"I can't tell you I wasn't frightened. I was two feet away from them and it was harrowing, even though I knew what to expect because he (Amorth) had told me."
The 1973 film was based on William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel of the same title. A work of fiction, it was inspired by a newspaper article Blatty had read when he was a student at Georgetown University in Washington.
In the 1973 movie, Linda Blair plays a 12-year-old girl who is possessed and some of the contortions of her face and body have become the stuff of cinematic history.
In one of his books, Amorth said the 1973 film's special effects, such as the twisting head and green vomit, were "over the top" but that he was grateful for the attention it drew to the problem.
Friedkin said he has long had an affinity with Christianity.
"I have always believed in the teachings of Jesus as they are set down in the New Testament. I was raised in the Jewish faith but I have honestly never felt close to God in the synagogue and I have had occasions of great spiritual warmth from priests and others in the Church," he said.
As for what he hoped the documentary could accomplish, he said: "Just because we don't know or understand something does not mean that it doesn't exist. I was able to see this and made a record of it, now people should be able to see it and judge for themselves."
(This version of the story fixes typo in year 2016 in 7th paragraph)
(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)