Russell Crowe plays a priest charged by the Vatican with driving out demons in Julius Avery’s underwhelming religious horror.
I consider it a failing of my Catholic school education that I had never heard of Father Gabriele Amorth until it was brought to my attention Russell Crowe would be playing him in a new film from Overlord director Julius Avery. Considering how difficult my teachers often found it to engage a group of children on the topic of religious doctrine, they might have considered bringing the prospect of demons and exorcisms into play. It certainly would have been a lesson I would have paid attention to.
Where the local diocese failed to deliver, The Pope’s Exorcist steps in, with Russell Crowe taking the titular role, as an Italian priest in 1987 working under the authority of the Vatican to investigate alleged demonic possessions. 98% of such instances are linked to mental illness, we’re told, but the remaining 2% are the result of something more nefarious: “Pure evil”.
Amorth’s first task within the film involved a possession in Tropea. After a bit of banter with the afflicted, he goads the ‘demon’ into possessing a local pig. The unfortunate pig is then blasted with a shotgun; an efficient, although unorthodox, approach to episcopal duties. The amiable Amorth – who tootles around on a red Ferrari vesper and sports a fetching pair of red tinted shades — is rather unpopular among the cardinals, who see his appointment as unserious and outdated. “You have a problem with me, you talk to my boss,” Amorth booms in response (meaning the Pope, not God, which would have been a wittier reposte).
The Pope — John Paul II — is quite fond of his exorcist. The two share a belief that evil is very much a real spiritual force, rather than, say, a thing people do to one another. This seems like an awfully convenient stance for the Catholic church to take, but either way, the Pope shields Amorth from the cardinals who would have him retire, and dispatches him to Spain, where an American family who recently emigrated to renovate an old abbey are being troubled by a malevolent force.
The evil that Amorth faces is a demon that has possessed one of the two children in the house. He demands “Bring me the priest” in a distorted British snarl (provided by Ralph Ineson) and does other demon-y things, like carving words into the boy’s stomach and making crucifixes fall off the wall – though reminiscent of Raimi Deadites, there’s less to chew on, literally and figuratively, under Avery’s watch.
A papal procedural follows, as Amorth attempts to find a way to rid the family of their demon while the Pope, back in Rome, investigates the abbey’s history. The demon is quite candid about his intentions: he wishes to possess the Pope’s exorcist in order to infiltrate the Vatican and cause havoc — as was previously the case in an incident the church covered up. While it briefly seems as though this topical thread might become a commentary on that which organised ultimately amounts to very little, and the film remains unambitious in its depiction of possession.
Crowe is pleasingly game, affecting a questionable Italian accent and bearing a striking resemblance to Orson Welles as he cuts about on his scooter, and Amorth – who was the subject of a 2017 documentary by William Friedkin – is undoubtedly a fascinating character worthy of a schlocky B-movie outing. But the stilted script takes a long time to deliver on its scintillating premise, and Avery can’t seem to strike a balance between the absurd and the disturbing, with the elaborate climax coming too late to really have an impact. Although the ending seems to suggest a sequel, where Amorth and his new sidekick Father Esquibel hunt down more demons, any follow-up should aim to fully commit to the absurdity, or lean more heavily into the The Exorcist homage – else risk repeating this film’s underwhelming execution.
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Published 8 Apr 2023
Love whatever accent Crowe is attempting in the trailer.
Not enough demons.
I’ve had more fun at Sunday mass.