Review – The Pope’s Exorcist

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Overview

Synopsis What should be a normal exorcism in 1980s Spain turns into a battle over the fate of the Catholic Church, as an ancient evil attempts to undermine the power of the church's greatest exorcist.

Length 1 hour 43 minutes

Release Date April 14, 2023

 

Rating R

Distribution Sony Pictures Releasing, Screen Gems

Directing Julius Avery

Writing Michael Petroni, Evan Spiliotopoulos

Composition Jed Kurzel

Starring Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto, Alex Essoe, Franco Nero

There have been a number of moderately decent films that I have missed in theaters this year due to struggling to get out to the cinema more often, namely films like The Covenant, Renfield, Gran Turismo, Suzume, Tetris, Sisu, Polite Society, Past Lives, Full Time, You Hurt My Feelings, and Last Voyage Of The Demeter.

Thankfully, many of these films are finally starting to make their way down to the rental market for me to view at home, even if that is not the ideal way to experience them for the first time. Among those recent watches is a moderately low-budget Julius Avery (Overlord) horror film that more than earned back its budget four times over, despite a Rotten Tomato score of 48%.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Some intense and gory imagery; self-mutilation, depictions of corpses and dead bodies, and repeated physical violence.
Language/Crude Humor: Severe language throughout including f*** and sexually violent crass language.
Drug/Alcohol References: A character frequently drinks whiskey, claiming it is to help his throat.
Sexual Content: Brief female nudity, discussions of sexual immorality, and characters making crass sexual remarks to purposely offend one another.
Spiritual Content: The film explores the concept of exorcism and demonic possession from a Catholic perspective.
Other Negative Content: None.
Positive Content: Themes of grace, forgiveness, and faithfulness in the eyes of God.

Review

Father Gabriel Amorth was a fascinating man in his lifetime. He was the Vatican’s lead exorcist for decades and became famous for his memoir discussing his life and work in his battles against the forces of darkness—which was later adapted into a documentary by the late William Friedkin. Earlier this year, a modestly successful new movie was released that explored his life, with Russell Crowe in the role of Fr. Amorth.

I’ve said before the exorcism genre is one of the least original in contemporary filmmaking. With rare exceptions, its structure, themes, and visual ideas have all been callbacks to The Exorcist, with every entry in the genre positively or negatively compared to its predecessor. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that The Pope’s Exorcist was not received kindly for that reason.

And it’s not hard to see why. Like most exorcism films, it exploits Christian and Catholic imagery in a way that neither meaningfully depicts it but just uses it as set dressing for supernatural mythology. Characters discuss God, confession, and temptation, and yet it doesn’t feel like more than acting in a movie. It feels exploitative as though the filmmakers believe they are spinning a shallow fairy tale that preys upon the prejudices of the common believer.

The Pope’s Exorcist follows an American family living in 1980s Spain who move into a large rural Catholic Abbey. When their youngest child begins showing signs of possession, the church calls upon its chief exorcist to protect the child but stumbles upon an ancient secret hidden beneath an ancient Abbey since the fall of Satan—a conspiracy from the depths of Hell to infiltrate and destroy the church itself.

I wouldn’t go as far as some other critics and say it is a bad film. As RogerEbert.com rightly points out, Crowe’s performance as Fr. Amorth is engrossing and goofy, full of bizarre mannerisms and scene-stealing charisma.

What also makes the film interesting is how immediately it tries to plant itself into the modern social-political issues with the modern Catholic Church, its place in the world, and its own internal battle with its sins, hypocrisies, and failures. The film directly addresses serious issues like the liberalization of the church in the 1970s, the sex abuse crisis, and the Spanish Inquisition, with Crowe directly calling it “one of the darkest moments in the history of the church.” At one point, the Pope’s Cardinals threaten to remove Fr. Amorth’s position because they are afraid that continuing exorcisms will damage the church’s reputation in the 20th century.

Crowe’s Amorth is given a passably fascinating story arc, with his own failures and doubts seeping in and affecting the exorcism. While he sarcastically quips that “my only fear is that France will win the World Cup,” he has many buried regrets and the demonic entities are able to take advantage of them. Much of the film explores thematic handwringing about the circumstances under which an authentic exorcism can be held. According to the rules of the film, a priest can only perform the exorcism if he is fully confessed, blameless, and unafraid—not letting the fears and regrets of his heart consume him.

The result is a film where Amorth’s story mirrors that of the state of the Catholic Church in the 20th century—being a church grappling with uncertainty, failure, decadence, pride, and moral compromise that continues to struggle with affirming its place as the self-proclaimed See of Peter. It is a film that wants to question how the church can operate in spite of its mistakes, with Amorth playing the role of the church’s on-call cowboy who can effortlessly and confidently banish demons with a joke.

The Pope’s Exorcist is not the most effective film. It is also not an accurate depiction of the life of Fr. Amorth, just as the Conjuring movies are only loosely based on the “true” stories of the Warren’s. I doubt much of the film’s plot comes from any of Fr. Amorth’s real writings, despite the film’s claim to be based on his memoirs. But there is a novelty in it as a movie—a schlocky horror film with the optimistic message that evil ultimately has no power in the absence of our guilt and doubt.

Positives

+ Fun Russell Crowe performance
+ Decent performances and story ideas

Negatives

- Derivative, exploitative, with an ahistorical story
- Schlocky violence and sexual content

The Bottom Line

The Pope's Exorcist is not the best recent horror film, but it has enough weird ideas and good performances to warrant a watch from curious horror fans.

 

7

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

1 Comments

  1. MBII on March 28, 2024 at 5:41 am

    The movie is not exploitative. Also don’t complain about hot girls showing their boobs.

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