Twenty-five years before The Crucible limped its way to the screen, the hysteria of 17th century witch-hunts was more effectively depicted in The Devils.
Based on Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon, this 1971 film tells the true story of Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), the acting governor of the fortified city of Loudon, France which had withstood the horrors of the religious wars by mutual agreement of Catholics and Huguenots to live in peace. However, a demented Mother Superior, Soir Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), in love with Grandier from afar, accuses the priest of witchcraft when she learns of his secret affair with a local girl. Wishing to be rid of the Huguenots, Cardinal Richelieu takes advantage of the nun's story to have the priest brought up on charges of witchcraft, hoping to finally purge Loudon's protestant community once and for all.
The Devils is a political thriller, horror film, love story, and black comedy while unsqueemishly exposing the true-life hysteria and subsequent horrors which rose up in the wake of Soir Jeanne's accusations. The Devils is at times disturbing, especially the scenes of exorcism and torture, and the orgiastic fervor of a convent coerced under penalty of death to feign demonic possession in order to discredit the priest.
The look and feel of the film is often surreal and even psychedelic, its atmosphere further evoked by its avant garde score. The performances are also rivetting, with Reed and Redgrave displaying some of their best work. The supporting cast, including Dudley Sutton, Michael Gothard, Gemma Jones and John Woodvine, are equally as brilliant.
The Devils is definitely not for the faint of heart nor those easily offended by depictions of the desecration of religious iconography. It is, however, the finest depiction of the hysteria of witch trials ever put on film, and a poignant cautionary tale about the dangers of fanaticism. It is also a faith-affirming film about a man who regained his soul in his defiance of corrupt rulers, and whose faith in Christ kept his spirit steadfast, even though his body was broken and finally destroyed.
—Paul Andrew MacLean