The Pope’s Exorcist is a supernatural horror film directed by Julius Avery that is equal parts spooky and silly, starring Russell Crowe as Father Gabriele Amorth, and based on Amorth’s real-life memoirs.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto, Alex Essoe, Peter DeSouza-Feighoney, Laurel Marsden, Ralph Ineson
The film opens in the mid-’80s with Father Gabriele Amorth (Russell Crowe) visiting a small town to investigate a suspected possession. After a tense and brutal confrontation, Amorth returns to The Vatican where he is chastised for performing unsanctioned exorcisms, largely due to the growing doubt around possessions and exorcisms within the church and the questionable relevance of Amorth’s position in the modern age.
Enter Julia (Alex Essoe), a recently widowed mother to rebellious teen Amy (Laurel Marsden) and mute-with-trauma Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), who relocates the mourning family to an inherited house in Spain following the death of her husband. Henry already looks halfway possessed when we meet him, but renovations within the ancient property reveal a hidden section that fast-track his demonic turn as an ancient evil is released upon the family.
It’s then up to Amorth and the young, earnest Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) to identify the demon and exorcise it from the young child before it’s too late – for the child, the family, and perhaps the entire world itself.
The Pope’s Exorcist is as ridiculous and earnest as everything about it implies; a film that frames the Catholic church as secret guardians of the universe in the battle of good and evil while also implying The Spanish Inquisition was ‘the work of the devil, disguised as the church’.
There are a lot of heavy-handed ‘oof’ moments within the script that often tear away suspended disbelief to remind you that these horrific moments are real historic events, but the film manages to prevent itself from turning into full comedy due to its consistent tone of dread and demonic decay on the soul.
There are occasional scenes that echo the raw brutality of director Julius Avery’s previous film Overlord, and Russell Crowe’s commitment to the role elevates everyone else around him. Although the film is primarily in English, there is a substantial amount of the film in Italian with subtitles where Crowe sounds more singularly authentic in character, complete with a reasonably seamless blend into English that feels natural without dismissing the film’s cultural setting.
The child actors play to both the time period (1987) and their individual roles quite well and, while there’s some nostalgic stereotyping in everything here – a thread of familiarity that lingers between homage and unoriginality – everything is so consistent onscreen in tone that when coupled with beautiful cinematography and a great score never lets the film fall completely flat even in its silliest moments.
The Pope’s Exorcist is enjoyable in that irritating way people declare something a cult classic while it’s still in cinemas, but there’s a good balance here for fans of the genre and of Crowe himself. His performance at times feels like a blend of Gladiator’s Maximus, the priests from Hellbaby, with a dash of Antonio Banderas and Brando’s Vito Corleone.
Again, he’s better presented in Italian than in English with an Italian accent, but the earnest playfulness that ties the performance together elevates everything else. Ralph Ineson gives a great performance voicing the demon, while Peter DeSouza-Feighoney gives a mostly consistent demonic performance, with highlights that easily outshine any duller moments.
And yet, I still couldn’t get the fake trailer for Satan’s Alley from Tropic Thunder out of my head; the poster for this looks like an April Fool’s joke, this is Crowe’s first horror outing, and I’d barely heard it existed until a few weeks ago.
Perhaps there’s a fear in promoting this kind of fan service-heavy comedy horror, and with a little more love this had the potential to be a morbid love letter to The Exorcist and demonic horror, with a unique flavour of Avery’s direction bringing it to life. While it’s there in moments, and never fully loses your attention, it’s an entire flip of the coin on whether this has a future cult following or mirrors its own plot and is simply left to be forgotten to time.
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