‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ is more of the same old religious-horror nonsense

Sympathy for the devil

Apr 18, 2023 at 10:26 am
click to enlarge Daniel Zovatto and Russell Crowe in The Pope’s Exorcist. - Jonathan Hession/Screen Gems
Jonathan Hession/Screen Gems
Daniel Zovatto and Russell Crowe in The Pope’s Exorcist.

I’m gonna get pedantic for a moment: Aren’t all “exorcists” — at least in the Catholic tradition — technically the Pope’s exorcist in the same way that all Catholic priests are technically the Pope’s priests? They all work for and ultimately report to that Big Guy in their slice of our corporeal realm, right? (Not forgetting the even Bigger Guy in the ultimate Upstairs, of course, if you believe in that sort of thing.) I’m no theologian, but I can be pretty orthodox about grammar, vocabulary, and language, and this bothers me.

Unless... The Pope’s Exorcist sounds cool, though, I guess, and might even fool some moviegoers into thinking that this is a movie about the Pope himself needing to be exorcized. Like, woo-hoo, head of the biggest criminal conspiracy on the planet is actually possessed by a demon. Makes sense! But that’s not what’s going on here. What is actually going on here isn’t so far removed, in fact... but it’s not clever or grimly funny like the movie seems to think it is. It’s not an intriguing twist on the usual exorcist-movie bullshit. It’s genuinely pretty appalling, if you’re not a believer. If you are a believer, it might feel like a get-out-of-jail-free card, literally as well as figuratively. Which is even more appalling.

Mostly, The Pope’s Exorcist is more of the same old religious-horror nonsense, the sort of unconvincing hoohah that it’s difficult to see how anyone could take it seriously, or be scared by it. The year is 1987, and the young American family of mom Julia (Alex Essoe) and her kids, teen Amy (Laurel Marsden) and gradeschooler Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), have just moved into the Spanish abbey they’ve inherited via their husband and dad, who died the year before. The necessary renovations have apparently unleashed some sort of demon — you don’t often see that in the DIY reality shows! — that is now possessing poor little Henry. Which involves the usual tripe including lots of swearing and throwing poor lowly priests across the room, even though the evil spirit is also seemingly unable to get a scrawny little kid out of bed. (Some days I don’t wanna get out of bed, either, and I pursue swearing as a hobby. Might I be possessed by a demon? I’m sure some people would say it’s likely!)

These sorts of movies need to be, well, hella engaging to make us see past their preposterousness, and this one is not hella engaging. I think it thinks it is, because its actual protagonist is not that poor family but the Vatican’s Chief Exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, played by Russell Crowe — Academy Award-winner Russell Crowe, the marketing hastens to remind us — hamming it up, complete with terrible Italian accent and, for real, flirting with nuns in the Vatican. (Crowe has always been a charismatic screen presence, and that’s still true, but it feels desperate here.) The lazy script doesn’t inform us how poor Henry’s plight comes to the attention of the actual Pope (Italian legend Franco Nero, for some reason), but it does, and he sends in Amorth to investigate, because evidently this is even worse than yer run-of-the-mill possession. (Amorth was a real person — he died in 2016 — which kinda feels ever worse. Like, a lot of people who absolutely should know better really think demonic possession is a real thing.)

Gallons of blood will be spewed from various orifices. Ladies’s boobies will be deployed, because nothing is more evil and tempting in our culture than a woman’s breasts. There will even be some mucking around in catacombs, and seeking out of ancient tomes in libraries with cool vibes, and ominous appearances of mysterious symbols; Indiana Jones and Dan Brown should call their offices forthwith. And all of it, ultimately, down to the ending that may or may not be attempting to be ambiguous in a wannabe-menacing way, wants you to ponder whether the greatest crimes of the Catholic Church, both historical and far more recent, might just be the work of the Devil himself, and not the doings of horrible human beings and the even more awful people who covered up the crimes of their peers for the protection of themselves and the institution they serve.

I mean, the greatest trick the Catholic Church ever pulled is convincing the world that bad shit is down to a mythical creature called Satan, and not down to terrible human creatures who don’t need supernatural prompting to be bad. And more than any other movie in this genre that I am aware of, The Pope’s Exorcist wants to convince you of that, too.

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