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 exorcised. 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: Doctor Sleep) 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 house-flipper shows! — that is now possessing poor little Henry. Which involves the usual tripe including lots of swearing and throwing poor lowly priests (Daniel Zovatto: Station Eleven, Lady Bird) 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 [True History of the Kelly Gang, The Nice Guys] 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 [The Lost City of Z, Django Unchained], 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 even worse. Like, a lot of people who absolutely should know better truly think demonic possession is an authentic 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.
more films like this:
• The Exorcist [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | HBO Max US]
• Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God [Prime US | Apple TV | HBO Max US]
I still want to see a real exorcism film. Young child is not conforming to its parents’ wishes (perhaps because they don’t want to be abused any more), and the exorcist is brought in to torture them back into submission to parental authority. Sometimes they die.
And because that’s where I’m coming from, I’m biast (con) to the extent that I’m really not interested in seeing films about possession/exorcism unless they admit to the real-world harm that’s done in the name of fighting imaginary capital-e Evil.
Sounds as though, starting with generic Exorcist ripoff, this film is going in the opposite direction from the one I’d like to watch.
Seems to me the title is fair, if possibly exaggerated. The Roman Catholic Church is a hierarchical organization (unlike, say, Sunni Islam, which purposely has no hierarchy at all.) It doesn’t seem like Amorth reported directly to the Pope in real life, but the movie depicts him taking orders from the Pontiff, so he’s more “The Pope’s” than a random parish priest in Albuquerque, who would have several layers of bureaucracy between himself and the Pope.
Wonderful review, MaryAnn. “Head of the biggest criminal conspiracy on the planet.” Wowsa!!