The Pope’s Exorcist

Director: Julius Avery
Starring: Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto, Alex Essoe, Laurel Marsden, Peter DeSouza-Feighoney, Franco Nero, Cornell John, Ryan O’Grady, Edward Harper-Jones
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Runtime: 103 mins. Reviewed in Apr 2023
Reviewer: Fr Peter Malone msc
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Strong horror themes and bloody violence

Inspired by the files of the Vatican’s chief exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth, the film follows Amorth as he investigates a young boy’s terrifying possession and ends up uncovering a centuries-old conspiracy.

The Catholic Church is in the cinema headlines once more. Exorcisms again. World audiences have become accustomed to exorcism films. In fact, it is half a century since The Exorcist was released in 1973. It caused some shocks at the time but Catholic reviewers and audiences took it in their stride.

Since then there have been both sequels and prequels, and a regular succession of films – serious, horror and spoofs. So, The Pope’s Exorcist arrives with a certain amount of cinema baggage.

The papal exorcist is based on the actual Pope’s Exorcist, Fr Gabriele Amorth SSP, who wrote some thirty books about his thousands of exorcisms. There was a 68-minute documentary by William Friedkin, the director of the original The Exorcist, interviewing Fr Amorth and a case, ‘The Devil and Father Amorth’ in 2017, a year after Amorth died.

World audiences consist of non-believers (including those who do not give God or the devil a second thought) and those who are hostile atheists. Then there are the audience of believers, especially Catholics. The responses are quite different.

As regards those for whom God is neither here nor there, they will treat this film as another horror movie and like or dislike it accordingly: scares, special effects, some blood and gore…

The setting is 1987 and Fr Amorth is early in his exorcist career/ministry. The film challenges us concerning Father Amorth as a credible priest. In many ways he comes off well (but we don’t know if the portrayal represents the actual man).

A bearded Franco Nero appears as the Pope, not particularly resembling John Paul II of 1987. Scandinavian actor, Max von Sydow, was very serious, in 1973. But here of all actors, is a portly Russell Crowe. He speaks Italian and so has an accent, credible enough, when he is asked to speak English. He rides a motor scooter, also has a sardonic sense of humour (and a whisky swig now and again), joking a lot – and he reminds us that the devil does not like jokes.

At first, we might wonder at his methods. But he soon explains (perhaps to our relief) that many of his cases are psychological rather than satanic possession and have to be treated accordingly, with therapy. Father Amorth has noted this in his books.

There is a case focus at the centre of this film. A family with a young boy who is possessed (and the expected curses, foulmouthed, contortions…) – the devil playing havoc with him, his mother and his sister. But there are some more sinister aspects. The setting is Spain, an abbey in ruins with secrets. In an eerie basement, Father Amorth and local priest Thomas find the caged corpse of a friar who in 1475 was possessed – inaugurating the Inquisition. So all its subsequent actions were Satan-inspired. It seems that the demon, Asmodeus, has engineered Father Amorth’s presence in order to possess him and work for the destruction of the church from the inside. Horror fans may not notice any of this.

Serious audiences might be interested in The Rite (2012), with Anthony Hopkins and some background of the courses in Rome held for exorcists from around the world.

The Pope’s Exorcist is not essential viewing but has its interest as well as its exorcism-horror conventions.

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