A figurative rock star among Vatican-sanctioned exorcists, Father Gabriele Amorth shuffled off his mortal coil in 2016 at the tender age of 91. He left behind a lifetime of exorcisms of the Roman Catholic kind numbering in the tens of thousands. Although these numbers come from his own, and likely exaggerated, accounts in two books: An Exorcist Tells His Story and An Exorcist: More Stories. Whatever the truth in the actual number of exorcisms Amorth performed, his story proved irresistible to Screen Gems, presumably with the hope of launching an equivalent to the lucrative Conjuring series. The aptly titled result, The Pope’s Exorcist, features Academy Award winner Russell Crowe in the title role. Jam-packed with overly-exuberant acting by Crowe and others, along with some foul-mouthed and demonically possessed children, and enough blood, gore, and vomit to fill a high-school janitorial closet, The Pope’s Exorcist will scratch a very particular itch among horror fans.
The Pope’s Exorcist begins in Italy as Father Amorth, just one year into his open-ended term as the Vatican’s hand-selected chief exorcist, hops onto his gleaming white-and-red Vespa. He heads to a small, rural village to investigate claims of demonic possession. Perpetually clothed in a flowing black cassock, trimly bearded, and carrying a valise containing the specific tools of the exorcist trade, Father Amorth confronts a seemingly possessed young man. Before long, though, Father Amorth, a man with keen insight and a keener sense of actual demonic possession, ferrets out the truth: The young man isn’t possessed; he’s just psychologically disturbed.
While Father Amorth returns to the Vatican for an impromptu hearing with meddling middle managers about his job title and responsibilities, The Pope’s Exorcist briefly breaks from Crowe to introduce the soon-to-be supernaturally harassed family that takes up the bulk of the running time: Julia Vazquez (Alex Essoe), a recently widowed American; her surly, New Wave-loving daughter, Amy (Laurel Marsden); and the equally surly, mute Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney). Henry hasn’t spoken a single word since he witnessed his Spanish-born father die horrifically in an automobile accident. Besides emotionally painful memories, Julia’s husband left his family a one-time church property, the San Sebastian Abbey, in Spain.
The Pope’s Exorcist omits the how and the why regarding the de-consecrated church property that Julia’s late husband left to the family. (Suspend disbelief all ye who enter here.). However, as it’s all Julia has left, she temporarily moves her family there and hopes to flip the abbey to unspecified buyers after some renovations. That temporary stay becomes existential when workmen seemingly release a demon into the abbey. Soon enough, said unnamed demon fixates on the vulnerable, fragile Henry. Cue mocking, foul-mouthed, unhygienic demon possessing Henry abusing a local priest, Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto). Soon enough, they’re calling in Father Amorth for a spiritual battle royal with the fate of Julia and her family–souls and all–in the balance.
By then, anyone in the audience can be forgiven for feeling like they’ve seen and heard everything previously and currently unfolding on the other side of the screen. They’d be more right than not as The Pope’s Exorcist hits every single exorcism-related trope, from sudden gusts of winds to furniture moving on its own, from knock-knock-knocking on the walls to occasional bouts of intestinal distress, and from spinning, gyrating wall-mounted crucifixes to the priests, individually and collectively, undergoing spiritual crises. Each priest has a trauma- and guilt-laden backstory and the unnamed demon, capable of burrowing into hearts and minds, uses their weaknesses as a leverage to maximum effect.
Throughout the movie, Crowe’s ebullient Italian priest holds centre stage through a combination of charisma and willpower, and by adding florid flourishes to the dialogue. Crowe injects just enough sincerity, mixed with more than a dollop of ham, to render Father Amorth a bright, colourful figure. Thankfully, he never devolves into a figure of ridicule or mockery. His enthusiastic, energetic dive into the abbey’s mysterious backstory/lore, his judicious reading of Latin incantations, and an occasional willingness to throw his sturdy frame into the proceedings often compensate for the multitude of story-related shortcomings.
In the final analysis, The Pope’s Exorcist may be more fiction than fact, but whatever the connection may be to our reality, it’s rarely less than engaging, sometimes even entertaining, thanks to Crowe’s committed performance, some solid to above-average supporting turns by a cast tuned into the demands of the material, and production design that — to borrow an oft-used phrase — turns the vast grounds of the ruined abbey into a haunted, haunting character of its own. Add to those factors an effective score by the Australian-born Jed Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed, Macbeth, Son of a Gun), and the overall result manages to rise above its campy, pulp-horror plotting and well-worn, overused ideas.