Movie Review: ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’

Movie Review: ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’

Russell Crowe (Right) as Father Gabriele Amorth in Sony Pictures ‘The Pope’s Exorcist.’

In theaters on April 14th, ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’, directed by Julius Avery, tries to turn a captivating true-life person into a homily-spouting, all-action priest who chuckles in the face of demonic possession. The result is a mess of a movie that is only haltingly entertaining. You’d honestly be better off throwing on William Friedkin’s 1973 iconic ‘The Exorcist’.

“Inspired by the actual files of Father Gabriele Amorth, Chief Exorcist of the Vatican.”

67

R1 hr 43 minApr 14th, 2023

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Inspired by the actual files of Father Gabriele Amorth, Chief Exorcist of the Vatican (Academy Award®-winner Russell Crowe), The Pope’s Exorcist follows Amorth… Read the Plot

Is ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ a true story?

While the movie itself is full of outrageous demonic invention, the titular central priest was indeed a very real man who worked for the Vatican for decades.

Father Gabriele Amorth, who died (no, not in the middle of a titanic exorcism) in 2016, was an Italian Catholic priest and exorcist of the Diocese of Rome who claimed to have performed tens of thousands of exorcisms throughout his life. Amorth, along with five other priests, founded the International Association of Exorcists. And before he ever joined the priesthood, he was a lawyer, a journalist and a partisan fighter against fascism in the Second World War.

The movie’s story follows Amorth (Russell Crowe) 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.

An American family move into a spooky former abbey (which would surely be a giant red flag to a family looking for accommodation). Julia (Alex Essoe) is looking to comfort her kids, Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) and Amy (Laurel Marsden) after the death of their father.

But grief and trauma has opened a dark doorway for a demon, and Henry is soon going full Regan-from-‘The-Exorcist’, sallow and scarred, spouting Latin insults and digging up secrets from the past he couldn’t possibly know.

Nervous young priest Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto), who doesn’t even know the exorcism rites, let alone what to do with a creature from hell possessing a child, summons Amorth, who quickly figures out that Henry isn’t mentally ill, nor is he making it all up.

Daniel Zovatto and Russell Crowe in Sony Pictures 'The Pope's Exorcist.'

(L to R) Daniel Zovatto and Russell Crowe in Sony Pictures ‘The Pope’s Exorcist.’

What works about the movie?

Crowe comes over well, despite some elements of the character that are more humorous than horrifying –– he putters around Rome on a little Vespa scooter, which given his current generous girth and flowing robes, looks more than a little embarrassing.

But in full flow, his portrayal of Amorth is an entertaining one. Whether it bears any resemblance to the actual exorcist is better answered by people who actually knew, worked with or were helped by him, but in the movie, he aims for a blend of friendly, relatable priest and gruff cop-style figure.

He’s no fan of bureaucracy, and when brought up in front of a snippy Vatican council about his most recent case (a scene that could have been ripped straight out of a police thriller, with the council demanding that he answer for his actions and he blithely suggesting that if they have a problem with him they can talk to his boss –– yes, the Pope). Add to that his actions later in the film, where he kicks in a door to help a young woman under threat from the demon of the day. Oh, and a moment in the finale where he and Esquibel brandish their crucifixes like guns. It’s certainly a choice, and while Crowe certainly does his best with it, the idea doesn’t do much to help the horror aspect.

Yet despite all the real-life adventures to draw from, the film instead goes for a souped-up version of Friedkin’s classic, mashing all the standard buttons and resulting in a schlocky horror that hardly feels worthy of Amorth. There’s the gnashing, wailing, growling victim, the priests and family members flung around like ragdolls by supernatural power and even a crucifix slowly grinding upside down on a wall. It’s more likely to provoke eye-rolling than hiding them behind your hands.

One or two jump scares work, and Avery, (working with cinematographer Khalid Mohtaseb) gives it a certain visual polish. But the story doesn’t do any of their work justice and several of the performances are lacking given their skeletal detail in the script.

Daniel Zovatto and Russell Crowe in Sony Pictures 'The Pope's Exorcist.'

(L to R) Daniel Zovatto and Russell Crowe in Sony Pictures ‘The Pope’s Exorcist.’

Related Article: Russell Crowe Talks ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ and What to Expect from the Film

‘Da Vinci Code’ descent

And while we won’t spoil how it all shakes out, the movie (written by Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos from a story by R. Dean McCreary, Chester Hastings and Jeff Katz) switches tracks from ‘The Exorcist’ to something more like ‘The Da Vinci Code’ with the pontiff (played in a few brief scenes by screen legend Franco Nero) and Amorth digging up evidence that buried beneath the abbey is something far more terrifying than anyone suspected.

We’re soon being treated to exposition dumps explaining dark chapters of the church’s history, and one particular period comes back to haunt all involved in a big, dark way. It’s one thing for the demon to play on our heroes’ fears, sins and regrets, it’s quite another for Crowe to go spelunking into cheap-looking caverns and musty chambers.

Plus, the plot strands never quite weave together until the end, and it feels a waste of such a great actor as Nero to spend his time paging through ancient tomes like he’s reading a teenager’s diary and looking shocked when he discovered that the Catholic church has been suppressing information. We’ve got some real revelations his holiness might want to investigate –– if it wouldn’t give the man presented here a case of the holy vapors.

Final Thoughts

Despite Russell Crowe’s best efforts, ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ never quite gels. Which is a shame, as Father Gabriel Amorth is a truly fascinating figure who would benefit from, say, a limited series rather than this goofy attempt to jazz up his work.

‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ receives 4.5 out of 10 stars.

Russell Crowe as Father Gabriele Amorth in Sony Pictures 'The Pope's Exorcist.'

Russell Crowe as Father Gabriele Amorth in Sony Pictures ‘The Pope’s Exorcist.’

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‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ is produced by Screen Gems, 2.0 Entertainment, Jesus & Mary, Worldwide Katz, and Loyola Productions. It is set to release in theaters on April 14th, 2023.

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