A film review by Craig J. Koban July 21, 2023


2023, R, 104 mins.

Russell Crowe as Father Gabriele Amorth  /  Daniel Zovatto as Father Esquibel  /  Alex Essoe as Julia  /  Franco Nero as The Pope  /  Laurel Marsden as Amy  /  Cornell John as Bishop Lumumba  /  Ralph Ineson as Demon (voice)

Directed by Julius Avery  /  Written by R. Dean McCreary, Chester Hastings, and Jeff Katz, based on the books by Gabriele Amorth

The new supernatural horror thriller THE POPE'S EXORCIST is loosely (and I'm guessing ever so loosely) based on the real life exploits of Father Gabriele Amorth, who was the chief exorcist for the Vatican and, yes, the Pope himself.  

Taken from two books penned by the Father, THE POPE'S EXORCIST delves into his devil cleansing exploits in the 1980s, which gained him a fair amount of recognition and publicity.  It has been said that he has done tens of thousands of exorcisms.  Okay, then.  Sure.  I'll bite.  That's, like, a super heroic level of exorcisms.  It's a good thing, though, that director Julius Avery (who made the terribly underrated World War II-inspired horror film OVERLORD) makes his version of Amorth literally look like a comic book character in his film.  At one point, we see him burning up the streets on his scooter while sporting his priestly accoutrements as well as a fedora and a pair of sunglasses.  What a simultaneously preposterous and awesome image, but it helps frame the kind of film we're getting into here.  

It's also helpful that Father Amorth is played by Russell Crowe, who seems to know precisely what kind of film and character he's occupying here.  We learn early on in THE POPE'S EXORCIST that Amorth is no ordinary priest and exorcist, but also a tough and no-nonsense one that isn't shy about busting out one-liners while chewing scenery.  He has a Batman-esque utility kit replete with crucifixes, holy water, and anything else that can be used to coax the devil out of a poor soul serving as its host.  Hell, he even has a flask of whiskey that he sips out of when needed.  I guess you can take the based on a true story claim here with a massive grain of salt and holy water, but what ultimately made THE POPE'S EXORCIST such a ridiculously good time for me was Crowe's very presence front and center.  He knows not to play this character too broadly as to come off as a laughable caricature, but he also understands that he has to infuse the role with a bit of wink-wink acknowledgement to the viewer that he's not taking this part or the film too seriously either.  THE POPE'S EXORCIST makes for a strong case study where an actor and his performance can wholly carry an otherwise generic genre exercise.  Without Crowe here, I probably wouldn't have stayed with this film for long.   

THE POPE'S EXORCIST is also a period film (set in 1987) and introduces us to Crowe's chief exorcist, finding novel ways to eliminate one pesky form of evil out of an innocent person's body.  I would argue that the opening scene of this film is easily its best, showing the Italy-based priest calling out the demon in question, yanking it out of the victim's body, inserting it into a pig (don't ask) and then brutally murdering the animal to ensure that the spirit doesn't infect anyone or anything else (but can one become possessed by the devil if you eat bacon from a possessed pig?).  Regardless of the sheer absurdity of this sequence, it got me invested and wanted to see more.  The film then segues to Spain, where we meet Julia (Alex Essoe), who has just inherited one of those ramshackle and dreary movie homes that will either (a) become a renovator's worst nightmare or (b) be housing some form of demonic entity (SPOILER ALERT: It's B).  While going through the property, Julia accidentally unleashes a Satanic force that possesses her youngest son, Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), leaving her and her daughter Amy (Laurel Marsden) in a state of panic.  Arriving to save the day is Father Amorth, who has brought along a younger sidekick in Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto), who hopes to learn the exorcising ropes from his older new mentor.  Unfortunately for all, it soon becomes clear that this possession will test the unparalleled abilities and patience of Amorth, who becomes dismayed when this spirit seems to have intimate knowledge of his past that complicates matters immensely. 



THE POPE'S EXORCIST makes some of the rather obligatory storytelling choices on display simmer with a bit more intrigue when it delves into Amorth's over confidence in getting rid of this devil trapped inside of poor Henry.  Amorth initially thinks that dealing with this exorcism will be a proverbial walk in the park, but when the entity starts to dish on his very personal experiences and psychological wounds that he suffered from during his days in the war, he realizes that he might be hopelessly mismatched here.  It also gets extra dicey when his new protégée in Father Esquibel is not only thrown into the lion's den with this exorcism case, but also has to deal with an extremely shocking and painful secret that he has kept from the world, but that this demon knows about and exploits to get the upper hand.  In many respects, both of these priests are ravaged by guilt and have to overcome it in order to find a way to save Kevin's soul and, in turn, strengthen their bond with Catholicism.  Having said all of that, Amorth is not completely broken down by this demon.  In one of the film's funniest moments, the evil spirit lashes out (via Kevin) that he's Armoth's worst nightmare, to which he dryly deadpans, "My worst nightmare is France winning the World Cup!"   

I liked cheeky moments like this in THE POPE'S EXORCIST, and, as already mentioned, Crowe is a semi-hammy delight as his cocky, headstrong, wise-cracking, and physically imposing soul saver that will use every trick in the book to get the upper hand over the nightmarish forces he experiences.  It's telling that the rest of the cast built around Crowe plays things as straight as an arrow, which is an effective contrast and allows for the horror and comedic elements of the film to gel together fairly well.  I guess that one of the fundamental problems with THE POPE'S EXORCIST is that it occupies a very, very heavily crowded genre pack that requires every new film in it to break some sort of new ground that hasn't been experienced before.  Every new exorcism film that comes out will always be compared to the last best entry to be released and/or the granddaddy of all of these films in 1973's THE EXORCIST.  I think that Avery is wisely not trying to duplicate William Friedkin's classic piece of terror wholesale, but a lot of what's in THE POPE'S EXORCIST is decidedly of the been-there, done-that variety.  

Possessed child?  Check.  

Possessed child having his body and face ravaged by this demonic presence?  Check.  

Possessed child dropping toxic vulgarity at the priests?  Check.  

Possessed child projectile vomiting, biting, levitating, and showing other forms of disturbing body anomalies that would make a contortionist blush?  Check.  

An old priest and a young priest brought in to save the possessed child?  Double check.  

THE POPE'S EXORCIST rarely, if ever, strays away from genre conventions.  

The film also builds towards a finale that's perhaps a bit too chaotic and riddled with poorly rendered CG effects that kind of neuters any level of scares that this film is desperately trying to generate.  It's a bit too bad, because there were genuinely refreshing elements introduced in the story about how both priests are struggling to navigate through deep personal pains while trying to thwart this nefarious spirit, which could have boiled over into a far more satisfying showdown and finale.  As a haunted house horror flick cross morphed into a man of God versus the devil action thriller, THE POPE'S EXORCIST is more unnerving than it is ever truly frightening.  Still, I have to admit that I ate up every scene Crowe inhabited in the film, and his wise performance instincts with this juicy character helped overcome many of this film's obvious deficiencies.  It's clear that Avery and company are aiming for the obvious franchise potential with the bad-assed Father Amorth, and I left my screening of THE POPE'S EXORCIST feeling like, yeah, I'd like to see more of this eccentric Catholic maverick and, overall, I was mostly entertained by this trashy, B-grade outing.  I would like to see him in a far better sequel, mind you, but as for this?  Not a terrible start.  After all and to remind you, the real Father Amorth boasted that he performed over 50,000 exorcists.   

That's a lot of sequel bait.

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