Inspired by true events, The Pope’s Exorcist stars Russell Crowe as a Vatican vanguard who wants to be in a Conjuring movie.
The Pope’s Exorcist is a loose adaptation of real-life priest Father Gabriele Amorth’s books, An Exorcist Tells His Story and An Exorcist: More Stories. And by loose, we really mean loose. Along with five other priests in 1990, he founded the International Association of Exorcists. He died, but the association lived to condemn and denounce the film as not even faithful to the spirit of the now deceased Amorth’s work. That should tell you something about The Pope’s Exorcist right away.
Set during the summer of 1987 and alternating between Italy to Spain, the film follows Father Amorth (Russell Crowe) as a self-proclaimed theologian, lawyer, and journalist who’s is in trouble for his unconventional methods. Meanwhile, broke widow and aspiring flipper Julia (Alex Essoe) drags her two kids, teen Amy (Laurel Mardsen) and a traumatized nonverbal Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), to an inherited decrepit countryside Spanish abbey to renovate and sell it. When Henry starts talking again, his voice is deep and sounds like a man. When he starts to harm himself and threaten others, the Pope (Franco Nero) orders Amorth to investigate. Amorth teams up with an inexperienced, young Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) as they both discover a demon more powerful than any Amorth has faced before.
The Pope’s Exorcist is not a good movie, though it features some striking standalone images: Crowe scooting around on a Lambretta — not a Vespa since Amorth was from Ferrari’s hometown Moderna; a Giallo inspired — or is it Carrie — naked woman covered in blood; a disembodied male arm wrapping around a sleeping woman that turns into a Raimi-esque inspired nightmare; silk, dark hooded robed men milling around an archive; or a throne room that would belong in an Indiana Jones film. For acolyte moviegoers, the thick atmosphere may be enough to satisfy, but for hard core horror movie lovers with a special interest in possession movies, they may find this film lacking.
“Let’s go to work. Let’s go to hell.”
While movies like Hereditary (2018), Demon (2015) and found footage films such as the Paranormal Activity franchise have breathed new life into the genre over the last decade, The Pope’s Exorcist feels like a step back. Australian director Julius Avery made a strong debut with Overlord (2018), has never seen the original The Exorcist (1973), and favors The Exorcist III (1990). Avery is open about fanboying over Crowe and leaning on the actor’s charisma, humor and gravitas to carry the movie, but relying on a character to drink alcohol from a flask and say, “Cuckoo” to passerbys is not enough. The flashbacks of Amorth’s partisan past as a resistance fighter during World War II against Mussolini’s new Fascist army, the National Republican Army (Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano or ENR), had potential, but the only consistent thread to the present is an evocative red cardinal that makes repeat appearances throughout the film.
The narrative does not work using its own logic, not that audiences noticed with the film coming in second on its opening weekend. The priests are not good at their job. For instance, Amorth would state a rule to follow then break it seconds later. It felt like the Winchesters could have handled this demon in the allotted forty-five-minute run time of a Supernatural episode. The majority of possessed are male, which is a welcome change from most possession movies that normally have nightgown clad young women writhing around tied to a bed with chanting men surrounding her, but this film more than makes up for it by giving a guilt-rooted past to each priest that involves a similarly attired woman. Amorth keeps talking about a mother’s love being pivotal to the outcome, but she was extraneous. Women’s sexuality and demons are a common trope in this type of horror film. The constant cutaways to the Vatican did not work except to add buckets of blood.
The Conjuring this is not.
It is also one of the rare films that unfolds in the ‘80s yet fails to evoke that period except for the headphones. Only people who lived during that time will recall how fundamentalists used to claim that Satan hid secret messages in music, which could be discerned if played backwards. The filmmakers do not bother casting a pope that resembles John Paul II, who was pope in 1987. There is no aspect of the story that requires it to be set in any time so the ‘80s feel like a cynical choice to appeal to more viewers.
The Pope’s Exorcist takes a page from James Wan’s The Conjuring by using a real life figure to authenticate a fictional story. Writers Michael Petroni, Evan Spiliotopoulos and R. Dean McCreary, each of whom has a wealth of screenwriting experience, including possession films, take it in a dangerous direction. The story ventures into alternate history. Unlike its redemptive, utopian predecessors such as RRR (2022), The Woman King (2022), Black Panther franchise or Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), it uses alternate history to exculpate the Catholic Church of all post-Inquisition atrocities by using an excuse that even the Church has not tried.
Not just a bad movie. A dangerous one.
A demon infiltrates the Vatican as if it was Hydra in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which seems hard to believe since the Vatican’s inhabitants convulse at the appearance of a demon countries away. With a few lines, the film excuses sexual abuse, child trafficking in the form of Magdalene laundries, colonialism and the recent uncovering of mass graves of indigenous children in the Americas. The Pope’s Exorcist is not just another bad horror movie. It is a dangerous one. With North American schools eliminating history, this film will replace facts in the minds of many uninformed viewers. Even though the Church may denounce the film, it could be the best public relations move for the global institution. Nothing was wrong with the Church or its followers. It was a demon all along!
The Pope’s Exorcist is shameless by teasing possible sequels since the film’s mythology features two hundred fallen angels. This movie only focuses on the battle against one, who remains unnamed for most of the film, but will be a familiar one to horror fans. Only 199 to go. One was plenty, but maybe a television series is what this “movie” was after all along.
The Pope’s Exorcist is now playin in theaters. Watch the trailer here.
Images Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment
THE POPE'S EXORCIST - 4/10