Using the same factual basis that inspired the recent courtroom shocker The Exorcism of Emily Rose, this quietly unnerving psychological study from German director Hans-Christian Schmid wields its ambiguity about religion and science like a double-edged blade. Freely adapting the story of Anneliese Michel, a 23-year-old German student who died in 1976 after a grueling exorcism, Schmid and screenwriter Bernd Lange imagine the girl (here called Michaela) as more Carrie White than Regan MacNeil—an epileptic, sexually blossoming seeker whose fits seem logical (and understandable) as explosive tantrums at her repressive religious upbringing. But Sandra Hüller, a young German stage actress making a harrowing feature debut, invests Michaela’s terrified, possibly schizophrenic outbursts with unholy conviction: When she claws toward a crucifix in mortal terror, the devil’s handiwork no longer seems a remote possibility. Or maybe it’s more appealing than the alternatives: a god who would allow such suffering as a test of divine allegiance—or no god at all, just the mind and its endless capacity for self-torture.

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