Now, as a non-believer, I unabashedly love the genre of religious horror. Show me someone possessed by a demon, or an evil flying angel, or an unfortunate victim getting thrown down the stairs by an angry spirit, and there is just enough doubt in my heathen soul that I’m like, “NOPE NOPE NOPE!” I enjoy a good exorcism tale, and The Pope’s Exorcist has a unique tease that it is based on a real man. Count me in!
Russell Crowe, portly and speaking Italian, plays Father Gabriele Amorth, a real priest that served as the Vatican’s leading exorcist from the mid-1980s until he died in 2016. A former soldier in World War II, a lawyer, and a journalist, Amorth sounded like a bonafide character, and loved to crack jokes (Satan doesn’t like jokes apparently) while performing over 50,000 exorcisms in his long career. Talk about a guy who had some stories! It’s a no-brainer that if any real-life character this side of The Conjuring‘s team of Ed and Lorraine Warren could be mined for a potential series of Hollywood-ready movies, it would be this guy.
But I digress.
In The Pope’s Exorcist, it’s early in his Vatican career when Father Amorth is called from Rome to San Sebastian, Spain (he just hops on his little scooter and apparently zips on over that 16-hour drive!) to investigate the possession of an unlucky American kid. The boy Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) has moved with his mom and sister to an abandoned, decrepit abbey (as Americans tend to do), and the kid went and got himself possessed by peeking through the wrong crumbling hole in the basement. The possession seems pretty run-of-the-mill: kid claws at his face; spews foul and suggestive things to his mom, sister, and the hapless local priest; and slowly wastes away as the demon uses up his life force. Except this demon is crafty… he knows Amorth and wants to play…
This fight against Henry’s demon quickly reveals to have much higher stakes than any other foe that Father Amorth has faced. He recruits an earnest if naïve sidekick (a hot young local priest played by Daniel Zovatto), and then enlists the help of his greater support network in order to vanquish the evil threat that may be bigger than anything anyone has faced before. Why does this sound familiar? Why, yes, this is basically a superhero movie! Except, instead of phoning a green friend that has access to all sorts of technology and gadgets, Amorth instead musters the Vatican’s Jawas (aka monk librarians) to pore over their vats of ancient manuscripts to search for buried clues that can help in this ultimate battle.
I have to admit, the idea of the Vatican having an endless library of priceless historical manuscripts (which, I’m sure is absolutely true) made me geek out. There is more than a tease in the plot that this may be Amorth’s first of many preordained battle against evil demons. As the real Amorth wrote books and books about his decades of work with the Vatican, you’ve got source material right there! It’s a no-brainer!
Alas, Father Amorth as character may be the most fresh thing about this otherwise typical exorcism movie. It’s a little unclear if Crowe feels like he is slumming in this flick, but he sure seems to be having a good time. Though he has good chemistry with the young priest, the rest of the story is pretty rote. In the extras, the filmmakers exclaim enthusiastically that they were making an exorcism movie unlike any ever seen before… but the thing is, it’s all pretty typical. Enjoyable, but typical.
But, see, there is still that intriguing tease. Combine the endless vaults of lore that may or may not be housed in the bowels of the Vatican, with just enough smattering of true-ish stories from the real fascinating Father Amorth, and enough Da Vinci Code-type historical puzzle-solving… and they just may be onto something here.