Perhaps Russell Crowe’s Man of Steel and Thor: Love & Thunder escapades have him thinking of a different kind of superhero franchise? Because that’s clearly what the endgame is for The Pope’s Exorcist, a supernatural papal thriller in which Crowe plays a…um, let’s just say “highly fictionalized” version of real-life exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth. And yeah, he’s not like the hundreds of other exorcists we’ve seen fight demons and get pea soup vomited on them in movie after movie. Amorth is better than them, because he’s THE POPE’S EXORCIST. He’s also a bit of a wise-cracking, hard-drinking rebel. He’s the Martin Riggs of the Diocese, riding a Vespa through the stony streets of Rome.
The focus on Amorth won’t matter a bit to most casual moviegoers, but it is pretty cool nonetheless. Amorth was the top exorcist of the Vatican for nearly four decades, and wrote multiple books about his demonic encounters. The movie doesn’t go into detail on this until the conclusion, noting that the “books are good”, suggesting that you should read up on them before the presumed sequel arrives.
From the beginning, Amorth is a pot-stirrer and shit-starter who does his own thing. We see him performing what appears to be a typical exorcism…but in an atypical way. There’s a pig involved. And a shotgun. It doesn’t earn Amorth any friends back in Rome, where his clergy superiors are eagerly looking for reasons to fire him. “Take it up with my boss!!!!”, Amorth shouts defiantly, because he was hand picked by the Pope (screen legend Franco Nero) himself. It affords him quite a bit of latitude to be an asshole, but a funny asshole.
In Spain, Amorth is drawn into the story of widowed mother Julia (Alex Essoe) and her two children; quiet son Henry (Peter DeSouza Feighoney) and teenage daughter Amy (Laurel Marsden). Grief-stricken over the patriarch’s recent death, they’ve taken over the secluded, creepy abbey inherited as part of his estate. Nobody in the family is happy about it. Even less so when weird, unexplainable things start happening, and Henry begins displaying all of the classic signs of demonic possession by an evil entity. Y’know, an especially filthy mouth, groping his mom’s breasts, scrawling nasty messages into his own skin. The usual! Only Amorth, with the help of a younger, seemingly useless Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) can untangle the web of Church secrets that have unleashed this Satanic force into the world.
This subgenre owes its life to William Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist, and a common pitfall of these movies is borrowing liberally from it. One of the things that makes The Pope’s Exorcist stand out, beyond Crowe’s hilariously bullish performance, is how it uses our knowledge of the Church’s actual crimes to create a crisis of faith within the so-called defenders of good. Director Julius Avery and screenwriters Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos don’t limit the action, either, as this powerful demon’s reach extends to the Pope himself, and possibly the entire world. Other aspects are entirely keeping within brand: the grim lighting, the familiar religious iconography and speeches about the power of faith. Been there, done that.
The final battle is an epic struggle that doesn’t even pretend to be grounded in any reality. It is a big-budget Marvel-style spectacle, impressively heavy in explosive special effects. Who knew religious artifacts were so combustible? Avery’s previous films, the comic book thriller Samaritan and gory Nazi horror Overlord prepared him well for this fast-paced paranormal contest of wills.
The positives outweigh the negatives, but The Pope’s Exorcist is only a notch above being just another terrible movie about demonic possession. In fact, Crowe’s half-baked Italian accent and scene-chewing tells me that he thinks it IS a terrible movie about demonic possession. At least he’s having fun with it, though, which is more than can be said about most actors in these movies. In one so-awful-it’s-good exchange, Amorth, trying to be a sarcastic thorn to the demonic Henry, quips that his worst nightmare is “France winning the World Cup”. There are multiple moments of incongruity that leave you flabbergasted they’re so bad. But in others, Crowe is just so committed to how ridiculous the dialog is that you just roll with it. His Amorth is basically John Constantine, fighting the good fight against Satan with a quip and a stiff drink. As Amorth says at one point in the film, it’s a fight that is longer than any one man’s lifetime. Assuming Sony’s box office prayers are answered, Crowe’s Amorth will be back.
The Pope’s Exorcist is in theaters now.