by Ayeen Forootan Film Streaming Scene

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist | Alexandre O. Phillippe

November 20, 2020
Credit: Sundance Institute

Leap of Faith is a fascinating fireside-style docu-chat that affords William Friedkin the space to freeform story-tell. 


It’s a particular challenge (if not entirely futile endeavor) to write about films that so vividly manifest through the singular aim of presenting the viewer with in-depth analysis of a very specific subject matter. It’s even more difficult when such films fix in front of the camera a natural-born storyteller and orator, and such is the case with Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary feature, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist. As the title declares, the film completely revolves around passionate cinephile/filmmaker Friedkin’s reflective, considered thoughts and words on his famous 1973 blockbuster horror, The Exorcist. Philippe constructs his sort of freeform essay film as a one-on-one conversation with the 85-year-old director, though he intentionally remains invisible behind his camera — there are only a few moments where he makes his presence known, such as an odd interjection or when Friedkin directly addresses him by his first name. The single-location interior set where the conversation takes place — seemingly, Friedkin’s residence and shot via static camera — blankets the film with an intriguing mood. With Friedkin comfortably sat in his armchair, as the fireplace blazes in the background, Leap of Faith takes the form of an intimate fireside chat, or even perhaps a ghost story, one where a strange, aged yarn-spinner begins to unveil to his curious young audience an ancient supernatural tale about the “mystery of faith and fate” set to the licking of flames. For Philippe, the mics and camera embody the role of an attentive, mesmerized child: they dare not interrupt, projecting only keen interest and trusting the storyteller to guide the story and its wonder in all the right ways.

But, as one might expect when it comes to Friedkin, the director can’t tell this story speaking only of The Exorcist, instead weaving something more complex and connecting more dots as his words duck into and out of all manner of content. He talks about his earliest encounters with and the impact of watching Cary Grant-starrer None but the Lonely Heart and explicates the specific texture of his appreciation for Citizen Kane. He dissects the different technical and formal foundations of The Exorcist — scripting, cinematography, lighting, sound, music, casting, and actor direction all pop up here. He moves beyond the purely cinematic, discussing the disparate inspiration he finds in other forms of art, religion, and philosophy, and he eventually navigates his thinking to self-reflection, criticizing and questioning some of his creative decisions. In other words, what’s never to be doubted here is that Friedkin — guide, protagonist, and the sole head in this talking head documentary — will be able to hold our attention from open to close.

That’s not to say Philippe doesn’t add his own character to Leap of Faith: using precise editing, he adds various bits of archival footage and peppers in other clips from films, paintings, and photographs to complement and enhance Friedkin’s words. Standard operating procedure, sure, but the construction soon offers more nuance. At times, he allows Friedkin’s voice to lend a kind of commentary effect, before allowing it to drop out, leaving only images to play across the screen for viewers to delve into and inspect according to the notions Friedkin has imparted, or also in ignorance of them. Indeed, much of Philippe’s straightforward, unambiguous, and intuitive approach in Leap of Faith can be understood in the same stylistic terms that Friedkin uses to explain his approach to The Exorcist: “a chamber piece,” “more into spontaneity than perfection,” and “as realistic and straight-ahead as possible.”

Ultimately, one can regard Philippe’s work as a realization of several different things: it can be understood as a portrait-documentary, reflecting the character and evolution of the artist as an old man and the relationship between creator and creation; at the same time, it functions as a more academic, comprehensive video essay on film analysis and criticism; and, more gently, it’s a friendly chat between two men and two generations of filmmakers. But of course, most fundamentally, Leap of Faith is a celebration of The Exorcist: a document for hardcore to revel in, a strong argument for a rewatch, and an instructional guide for reconsidering Friedkin’s legendary film.

You can currently stream Alexandre O. Phillippe’s Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist on Shudder.

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