For decades, Father Gabriele Amorth was the premiere exorcist of the Vatican, performing hundreds of exorcisms alongside rigorous journalism and theological study of the phenomenon of possession. It’s a role that carries with it no small amount of mystique — the Catholic Church’s own set of superheroes — which William Friedkin used so expertly in his 1973 classic, The Exorcist.
In more ways than one, Julius Avery’s The Pope’s Exorcist caters to those notions with a few novel flourishes, not the least of which is Russell Crowe as a decidedly irreverent spin on our notion of the exorcist. And when it focuses on these fun twists to what is, fifty years on, a well-worn formula, there are devilish delights to be had.
The Devil and Father Amorth
Based extremely loosely on the life and works of the real-life Father Amorth (for more on him, see William Friedkin’s curious doc on the subject, The Devil and Father Amorth), The Pope’s Exorcist envisions the famed priest as a savvy, sassy, idiosyncratic demon hunter, played with Orson Welles-ian bluster by Crowe. While he has the ear of the Pope (played with solemnity by Italian film legend Franco Nero), his radical methods are scoffed at by the younger, more skeptical generation of Catholic cardinals who offer oversight. They’re too distanced from the evils of Satan, the Pope tells Amorth early on. They don’t see what he’s seen, what he understands from a youth spent as a Partisan in World War II and his lifetime studying and fighting the Devil.
Unlike Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin, however, Crowe’s Father Amorth is a decidedly modern exorcist, and his ebulliency buoys a lot of The Pope’s Exorcist. With his barrel-chested frame and acerbic twinkle in his eye, Crowe carries himself like a Vatican-endorsed Orson Welles, smirking and cracking wise with his thick Eye-talian accent dripping like marinara from his bushy white beard. The film delights in the archly funny image of a corpulent Crowe wrapped in priestly frocks, fedora, and thick sunglasses, puttering down the street in a teeny-tiny scooter. He’s not one of those boring exorcists, he’s a cool exorcist.
As we see early on, his typical methodology basically amounts to negging demons out of their host bodies through antagonism and reverse psychology. If a demon asserts that he’s Amorth’s worst nightmare, he’ll casually riposte, “My worst nightmare is France winning the World Cup.” Imagine Columbo carring a crucifix.
Our Sins Will Seek Us Out
It’s a good thing Avery has such a rock-solid star to center his film around, because the rest of it is bogged down in every exorcist-movie convention you can imagine. The primary case he follows, sent by the Pope as if His Holiness were M and Amorth James Bond, concerns a young boy (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) in rural Spain who appears to become possessed when he and his mother (Alex Essoe) and teenage daughter (Laurel Marsden) travel from America to restore the decrepit abbey they’ve inherited from their recently-passed patriarch. But this particular segment will hardly surprise anyone who’s seen literally any exorcism movie: the demon spits profanities, Force-chokes family members, leaves invisible scratches on the wall, you name it.
For all its convention, though, Crowe’s presence, and the way he brings out welcome nuances in his co-star’s reverent performances (especially a young local priest, played by Daniel Zovatto, who becomes Amorth’s reluctant assistant) help the proceedings move with a sinister urgency, even if they’re not exactly spine-tingling. The film’s final act offers glimmers of something more interesting happening under the surface — tying the iniquities of the Spanish Inquisition to demonic influence, Father Amorth’s pride leaving him open to demonic possession himself, and so on. But that more ambitious epilogue ends as quickly as it begins, and we’re left with a postscript that promises a bevy of demon-dispatching sequels we may never get.
It’s hard to overstate just how much Crowe elevates this thing; he sails through each scene with a dancer’s grace, elevating the material without ever stooping to mock it. Without his presence, The Pope’s Exorcist would be something I’d easily recommend skipping. But there’s just something delightful about Crowe’s laconic turn here, a bonafide movie star aging into a wonderful character actor and using that cachet to carve out quirky roles that interest him. The rest of the movie is hardly up to his level, but it doesn’t have to be; it can just be good enough, and Crowe will lift it up to the heavens.
RATING: 6/10 SPECS
The Pope’s Exorcist is currently in theaters.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.