The Pope's Exorcist

The Pope’s Exorcist

When you really need a doctor, who do you choose?  The young, baby-faced one who’s only been a resident for a couple of years, or the older doctor who has fought countless battles with sickness and death and won most of them?  Experience matters, so I take the older doctor whenever I can.  Same would go for an exorcist.  I don’t want the young whippersnapper, I want the grizzled veteran who cracks jokes while in the presence of a demon just because it pisses it off.  That is exactly the kind of priest Father Amorth (Russell Crowe) is.  He’s been involved in more possessions than he can count.  He’s so savvy he can tell within a matter of minutes whether a man is actually possessed or faking it.  And if the afflicted is faking it, then Amorth is happy to oblige with a little of his own.

This is how we are introduced to Amorth.  He’s called to perform an exorcism, but instead of whipping out his bible and spraying holy water around, he asks some basic questions.  The afflicted person speaks English, which is not his native tongue.  Did he have access to a television?  Ah, the man has learned English from Dallas and has convinced himself that he’s possessed.  Amorth taunts the man, saying that he couldn’t possess this pig over here.  When the man takes the bait, Amorth kills the pig.  The man suddenly feels better and now everyone gets a nice pork chop dinner.

The church is not pleased with Amorth’s showmanship.  Cardinal Sullivan (Ryan O’Grady) calls Amorth before a star chamber of sorts and chews him out.  Amorth finds this all very amusing.  Does Sullivan think that evil doesn’t exist in the world?  Well, no, but performing exorcisms is not what the church is about!  Amorth knows better.  He knows that the devil does manifest himself on Earth regularly enough, and only the foolish ignore it.  Besides, Amorth has it in with the Pope.  As long as the Pope is alive, Amorth is untouchable.  (Did I mention that the Pope is not well?)

Meanwhile in Spain, an American family has just arrived to settle into a decrepit abbey. The father died suddenly and this was the only thing he left behind:  a converted church in another country that requires a major restoration job.  How a family with no money can afford to do any of that is not answered.  (The devil is in the details, I guess.)  Not only does mom Julie (Alex Essoe) need to supervise the restoration, she has her hands full with her hormonal daughter Amy (Laurel Marsden) and traumatized son Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney).  He hasn’t spoken a word since he witnessed his father’s death.  Rest assured, he’ll say plenty soon enough.

Before long, Amy and Henry are confronted by an unseen force.  First Amy is tormented by the “shave and a haircut”, then Henry is possessed by a demon through his headphones.  (Beware the Devil’s Walkman, young man.)  Neighborhood priest Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) arrives but is quickly thrashed by Henry.  Recognizing that he’s out of his league, Esquibel calls in Amorth.  Fortunately, Amorth is just a quick Vespa ride away.  After cleansing his armpits with holy water, Amorth pays Henry a house call.  Yep, the kid is definitely possessed.  Amorth and Esquibel try out the old exorcism routine, but this demon is a tough nut to crack.  Eventually,  Amorth and Esquibel discover that the demon is no run-of-the-mill demon.  It has a history with the church and hints at big plans it has in store for Amorth.  This leads to a slam-bang third act that features the revelation of some incredible church secrets, a sealed-off secret chamber and a game of demonic hot potato.

This year’s prescribed exorcism movie is The Pope’s Exorcist, a movie that is thematically familiar yet different enough to make it a solid guilty pleasure viewing experience.  Exorcism movies tend to follow the same recipe (inverted crosses, obscenities and prayers shouted, heads turned, popped joints, etc.)  While I enjoy the obvious trappings of these movies, I appreciate how they color outside the lines.  First and foremost, the movie features Russell Crowe as the Lead Exorcist.  (There have been enough handsome-yet-bland actors in this role, thank you very much.)  Crowe has a ball with this part, infusing Amorth with his imposing physicality and a jovial sense of humor.  Far removed from his glory days, Crowe is now a stout middle-aged man and is the perfect fit for the worldly and blustery Amorth.  He has a presence that few actors can match and he elevates the material with ease.  Second, instead of having the possession be pure chance, the movie gives the demon a backstory and a fairly devious plan.  It’s a bit of a mystery why things are happening, and the movie gradually unveils what the demon has in store.  Lastly, the movie has a tinge of perversity that similar movies barely hint at.  This demon knows that there is no better way to confuse and disorient a presumably devout priest than with Sex.  The movie doesn’t go headlong into that direction, even though it clearly wants to.  Still, The Pope’s Exorcist is entertaining, and Crowe is fun to watch as he chews the scenery and leaves the other actors in his dust.  Recommended.


I’ve seen so many exorcism movies over the years I’m having trouble telling them apart.  I created this handy page in case you’re in the same fix I’m in.  Before diving into my analysis of The Pope’s Exorcist, I wanted to take a closer look at these films.  To my surprise, the breakdown between those rated R and PG-13 is almost equal.  Some of them have a recognizable actor, while others are led by unknowns.  According to the MPAA, they each usually have intense/frightening sequences, disturbing images, language and sexual references.  When I watch an exorcism movie, I know what to expect.   Even though I’ve seen that crazy demonic possession stuff many times before, if the movie doesn’t deliver, I feel cheated.  An exorcism movie without a possessed person climbing a wall is like a slasher movie where nobody gets stabbed.

In terms of its construction, The Pope’s Exorcist isn’t much different from any of the other exorcism movies that have come out recently.  It follows the same recipe as last year’s Prey for the Devil, for example.  And like that movie, it delivers the goods while tweaking the recipe just enough to make it interesting.

First, it has Academy Award-winning actor Russell Crowe in the lead.  The last time this happened was with The Rite, which starred Sir Anthony Hopkins.  Whereas Hopkins gave an uninspired performance as a man of the cloth, Crowe devours his role as Father Gabriel Amorth with gusto.  Exorcism priests are known for being pious, intense and bland.  Crowe’s Amorth is much more entertaining to hang out with.  He rides around on a vespa, swigs whiskey and cracks jokes to piss demons off.  Amorth is not just a holy man but a man of the world.  As he tells fusty church bureaucrat Cardinal Sullivan, he’s not just a priest but also a lawyer, journalist,  author and self-promoter.  (The way he continually recommended his books over his articles was a nice touch.)  Crowe’s performance is big and brash and I enjoyed it throughout.  It’s easily his best performance since The Nice Guys in 2016.  He brings so much energy to the part that the movie sags whenever he’s not around.

The movie is a bit nastier than other exorcism movies of late, even the R-rated ones.  As soon as Henry is possessed, he’s spouting off f-bombs like nobody’s business.  The performance reminded me of Linda Blair’s Regan in the granddaddy of all exorcism movies, The Exorcist.  No, he doesn’t do anything obscene, but the demon who possesses Henry is a mean one.  He bites off a chunk of Father Esquibel’s ear and throws Julia and Amy around the room like toys.  This demon isn’t just a showoff, he really wants to hurt people.

While it is true that The Pope’s Exorcist, like many other exorcism movies, copies directly from The Exorcist, it also distinguishes itself by stealing from The Amityville Horror.  Unlike other exorcism movies where the possession just happens out of thin air, the demon in this movie was sealed inside the abbey the family moves into.  The restoration activities unseal the chamber that imprisoned the demon, and it quickly sizes up Henry as the perfect vehicle to carry out its master plan.  This eventually leads to interesting revelations about the church and the Inquisition that I’ll get into below.  Regardless, creating a movie that is a mashup of two of the biggest horror movies of the Seventies takes guts, and the five writers credited with the screenplay pull it off well enough.

Another element of The Pope’s Exorcist that surprised me was its overt sexuality.  Instead of the female victims depicted as plane-jane types, the movie frames Henry’s mom Julia as a sexy MILF and his sister Amy as a hot-to-trot young thing.  However, the movie mostly teases what it really wants to explore.  Amy’s hormonal tendencies are quickly forgotten once the possession stuff begins to assert itself.  There’s a scene where a possessed Henry grabs Julia’s breast, which I found shocking because exorcism movies rarely cross over into perversity.  A demon in an exorcism movie can spout all sorts of offensive and profane stuff, but they rarely ever show the demon doing anything obscene.  (The Exorcist may be one of the few.)  Someone on Twitter mentioned that the movie gave them The Amityville Horror 2 vibes, but no incest scenes were included.

The Pope’s Exorcist does engage in a modest level of kink when Father Esquibel is confronted by an apparition in the form of the woman he had a sexual relationship with when he was a priest.  First she’s seen topless, then completely nude covered in blood.  For a few minutes I thought the movie might fully embrace the unbridled perversity of Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye, but no. Still, I give the movie credit for acknowledging the fact that even the most devout priest is helpless to resist the pleasures of the flesh when it is right in front of him.

One aspect of exorcism movies that has always bothered me is that the reasons given for why the victim became possessed are either vague or nonexistent.  In The Exorcist, Regan, a completely normal kid, was unlucky enough to play with a Ouija board.  Other exorcism movies explain possession as a demon taking advantage of a person who is in a compromised mental state.  The Pope’s Exorcist also follows that line of reasoning, with Henry suffering from PTSD after witnessing his father’s death.  However, the demon in this movie didn’t randomly choose Henry.  Henry showed up where the demon was held captive, and the restoration activities let it lose.  In other words, what happens to Henry in this movie isn’t pure chance.

Most exorcism movies are content to portray the demon as an agent for chaos and mayhem.  This demon in The Pope’s Exorcist doesn’t just show up out of the blue–it has a historical context and a devious master plan it’s been longing to see through.  According to this movie, the demon sought out exorcists to possess and had them institute the Inquisition.  I’m not well versed in Spanish Inquisition history but given what I know of it, this explanation makes as much sense as any as to why members of the Catholic church tortured and killed their own members.  When the church bigwigs figured out what was going on, they sealed up the chamber with the possessed exorcist inside (and did likewise with 199 other inquisition sites).

After establishing the demon’s historical context, the movie gradually reveals its plan for revenge.  The demon possessed Henry in order to lure Amorth to the abbey.  It then takes possession of Amorth as a trade for the lives of the others.  When the demon is inside Amorth, it will use his position within the church to exact revenge for being trapped for all those years.   The Pope’s Exorcist goes to extraordinary lengths to make the demon a credible villain.  The movie may follow the same template as the countless exorcism movies that have come before it, but it also takes advantage of opportunities to color outside the lines in interesting ways.

That said, I didn’t really find the movie’s explanation for why Julie, Amy and Henry were in the abbey in the first place.  According to Julie, the only thing her husband left behind was a crumbling abbey in Spain.  The guy has a wife and two children but no insurance policy?  Also, if the family has no money, how are they paying for the restoration?  Even further, how will the family be able to survive in Spain?  I don’t remember any members of the family speaking a word of Spanish.  When the abbey is fully restored, what then?  Will they give out tours?  Turn it into a cozy little B&B?  How will they be able to pay the utility bills for that huge castle?  Clearly, the filmmakers were more interested in the demon than the suffering family.  I wish they had taken more time with the screenplay to address so many obvious plot holes.

Last but not least, this is the second movie I’ve seen this month that features a song by the Violent Femmes in the opening minutes.  First Air used “Blister in the Sun”.  Then this movie features “Gone Daddy Gone”.  I can remember hearing those songs on the radio back in the day.  I never would have figured to hear them in movies so often over the years.  I hope those guys are enjoying their residuals.

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