Synopsis – Inspired by the actual files of Father Gabriele Amorth, Chief Exorcist of the Vatican, The Pope’s Exorcist follows Amorth as he investigates a young boy’s terrifying possession and ends up uncovering a centuries-old conspiracy the Vatican has desperately tried to keep hidden.
My Take – There are truly so many exorcism and demonic possession films that it is impossible now to keep count. Indeed, catholic horror remains a genre that shows no signs of slowing down, and as more of the church’s real-world horrors come to light there is a genuine space to be something more.
However, this latest Julius Avery (Overlord, Samaritan) directorial isn’t interested in that, instead choosing to offer standard fun times at the cinema.
Inspired by An Exorcist Tells His Story (1990) and An Exorcist: More Stories (1992), memoirs of the late Father Gabriele Amorth, the Chief Exorcist of the Diocese of Rome who claimed to have performed tens of thousands of exorcisms throughout his life.
Here, director Avery and writers R. Dean McCreary, Chester Hastings, Jeff Katz, Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos place him in an abbey of San Sebastian in Castile, Spain, and prop him up with haunting music and horror tropes like a child lying on the bed mouthing obscenities. And while this would make it sound like another one of those lousy exorcism films that release ever year, but to my surprise I actually found myself quite entertained by some of these clichés.
Though most exorcism films fail due to misguided attempts to mimic The Exorcist (1973), but director Avery seems content in embracing these similarities while adding his own tinges. It’s a refreshing approach that saves what is otherwise a standard exorcism thriller from fading into the overcrowded market.
I particularly enjoyed Russell Crowe‘s performance and found the humor he brought to the role spot on. It wasn’t over the top, and it felt organic. Crowe seems to be having a lot of fun playing the eponymous exorcist, and the film essentially stands or falls by how on board you are with this central performance.
Yes, it isn’t the best exorcism film ever made, but it at least manages to stand out from most that have touched on this subject in recent years.
Beginning in 1987, the story follows Father Gabrielle Amorth (Russell Crowe), who has been employed as the Vatican’s chief exorcist for some time now. And though the current administration doesn’t feel his old ways are important any more, Amorth assures that exorcisms must carry on until evil exists. Inevitably, it’s not long before the Pope (Franco Nero) himself sends him on a mission to Spain to help a young child situated in a location which has apparently given the Church trouble before.
Oblivious to the horror below, Julia (Alex Essoe), a recent widow, moved with her son, Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), and daughter, Amy (Laurel Marsden) from America to the decrepit Spanish abbey her husband inexplicably left them in his will. Being the only thing they inherited, she is keen to renovate and sell it to make ends meet. And since Henry hasn’t said a word since his father died a year ago, he is quickly taken over by a demon.
When Amorth arrives in Castile, he realizes that the sinister force is much darker and more evil than anyone could have ever anticipated. Teaming up with the local priest, Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto), Amorth sets out to uncover the demon’s name and vanquish it to the depths of hell, all the while uncovering a centuries old Vatican conspiracy.
After some mandatory shots of scary hallways and dainty walls, the film does not slip from moving away from the template, with Henry getting possessed by a Devil, who calls himself blasphemy and nightmare, both of which stand in opposition to the Church.
The film has the usual tropes of a horror flick and follows a linear narrative and no room has been given for any unexpected twists and turns or frightening moments which would have highly benefited the film. Julius Avery’s direction is fair but the narration fails to scare the supposed daylights out of the audience despite people being thrown through mirrors, walls, doors and bathroom sinks with surprising frequency. It is, however, entertaining.
It all leads to the inevitable climax of theological theatrics, with director Julius Avery going over-the-top with bayonets drawn, introducing exploding naked babes and gates to Hell. Yes, it does attempt to address the horrifying truth of religious institutions and how abuse can be a recurring plague in such premises, but does the film attack it with all its might? It’s a sad no.
Without a doubt, the biggest anchor of the film is Russell Crowe‘s weirdly committed performance with an old-school movie-star quality to it. As the bulky, aging and eccentric priest, with a strange sense of humor, who loves to ride around in a Vespa, is delightful. Unconstrained by questions of subtlety, by direction, by, dare we even say it, taste, Crowe grabs the film by the throat and elevates it far above status.
As the possessed child, Peter DeSouza-Feighoney puts on a fantastic show, while Daniel Zovatto, Alex Essoe, Cornell John, Laurel Marsden, and Franco Nero lend decent support. There’s no denying that Ralph Ineson as the voice of the demon is hauntingly magnificent. On the whole, ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ is a decently made possession flick anchored by Russell Crowe‘s weirdly committed performance.
Directed – Julius Avery
Starring – Russell Crowe, Ralph Ineson, Alex Essoe
Rated – R
Run Time – 103 minutes