Director Julius Avery’s The Pope’s Exorcist announces its particular tenor right from the opening scene, as Father Gabriele Amorth (Russell Crowe) arrives by moped to the site of a possible demonic possession, his black robe billowing in the breeze, and ends with the brutal shooting of a pig, its blood and brains splattered across the faces of the unfortunate witnesses. Marketing material for The Pope’s Exorcist have made the movie look deadly serious, a slight sheen of prestige to be found in the presence of Academy Award-winner Crowe. Yet the final product is anything but, a tale of dastardly demonic derring-do with tongue planted firmly in cheek. That this is “based on true events” is par for the course for these types of films, but Father Gabriele Amorth was indeed a real person, and the official exorcist of the Diocese of Rome from 1986 until his retirement in 2000. The Pope’s Exorcist is even adapted from two separate memoirs detailing Amorth’s experiences in the demonic possession game, and one has to wonder how he would react to a movie that features him repeatedly taking swigs from a flask and washing his sweaty pits with holy water — pious as he is, he does at least say a Hail Mary before that last transgression. So yes, this priest is a bit of a rapscallion, bellowing “Cuckoo!” while walking around Vatican City and chasing after large groups of nuns, all in the name of a laugh. But there’s nothing funny about evil, and Amorth is appalled when a new group of senior advisors within the Church try to tell him how to do his job. These heartless bureaucrats are slashing jobs while refuting the existence of evil, a curious detail to include in a film set in 1987, although one would be hard-pressed to determine the exact era, so unconcerned is the end product in such trifling details. (But hey, The Pope’s Exorcist is woke to the evils of corporate capitalism!) The Pope himself (Franco Nero), however, is on Amorth’s side, and there are certainly worse people to have in your corner.
Meanwhile, in an abbey in the countryside of Spain, an American family consisting of mom Julie (Alex Essoe) and kids Amy (Laurel Marsden) and Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) have arrived to commence construction on a new home and start a new life after the car crash death of their beloved patriarch a year earlier. Henry was present for the event, and was so traumatized by what he saw that he hasn’t spoken a word since; this tracks when the film abruptly flashes back to that fateful night for a single shot from Henry’s POV that consists of the father with a piece of rebar impaled through his skull. Again, nice touch. Turns out, this abbey has a storied history of evil, and it isn’t long before the construction crew has inadvertently awakened a long-dormant demonic entity that immediately possesses the young and emotionally prone Henry. Cut to the young boy honking boobs and smashing heads though porcelain sinks, all while repeating the word “fuck” more times than Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. (Bonus points for a film concerning exorcisms that is actually rated-R and leans heavily into that lane.) Amorth is soon called to the manor, and discovers that this possession may be the real deal, especially after the demon discusses long-buried secrets and sins from the Father’s past. He teams up with a local priest by the name of Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto), because dude could use the help, especially when it’s discovered that somehow both this demon and the property are linked to the Church itself, ultimately exposing its attempt to cover-up its role in the Spanish Inquisition(!). No wonder Amorth is so sweaty.
The degree to which The Pope’s Exorcist attempts to be both reverent and critical of the Catholic Church is as compellingly ridiculous as everything else on display, a story of how individual goodness can triumph over systemic rot. But lest you think the movie sounds more serious or profound than it actually is, Avery is not the least bit interested in anything resembling depth or authenticity, and thank God for that. Every facet of the production is consistent in its intentional key of borderline camp, from Crowe’s voracious scenery-chewing to the cheap-looking production design to the SyFy Channel-level visual effects. There’s simply no denying the certain charm of watching an obvious rubber doll with the voice of Ralph Ineson refer to a priest as a “panty sniffer.” And then there’s the film’s climactic showdown, which sees Father Esquibel throw a cross to Amorth but with the holy relic meant to mimic a gun. Avery somehow even manages to sneak some gratuitous female nudity into the proceedings, because of course he does, and also leaves the door open for 199 — yes, 199! — possible sequels, with Amorth commenting that a replacement will be needed somewhere down the road. The Pope’s Exorcist is exactly what this stale subgenre needed — a blast of gory, goofy fun in a desert of dire solemnity. Personally, this critic will take ten more entries minimum, so long as they include even more scenes of the Pope projectile-vomiting blood into people’s faces. Thank God, thank the devil, thank the demons — this movie is good.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 16.