The Pope’s Exorcist

popes exorcist

If you plan to see The Pope’s Exorcist, may I suggest you preface it with a viewing of William Friedkin’s 2017 documentary The Devil and Father Amorth? The Friedkin film isn’t much as a movie (it’s streaming free with ads on Tubi), but its long centerpiece containing footage of a purported real exorcism is worth a look. It conveys the frustration and boredom as well as the drama and fear evoked by the ritual, and it shows us the then-91-year-old Father Gabriele Amorth at work, starting off by literally thumbing his nose at the devil and then exorcising, steadily and patiently, for however long it takes. And the result isn’t a Hollywood triumph, either. The victim, Cristina, has undergone nine unsuccessful Amorth exorcisms, including the one we see, and for all we know she suffers to this day.

Father Amorth gets his Hollywood close-up in The Pope’s Exorcist. Hell, he’s even played by Russell Crowe, here chowing down on his favored meal of late, a nice ham sandwich. Crowe must have seen the same footage of the real Amorth, because he gets the man’s sometimes goofball sense of humor and a degree of unflappable calm in the face of demons. I think the actual Amorth might have laughed heartily at this film’s depiction of him as an action exorcist, kicking down doors and investigating an ancient corpse’s stomach. And Crowe, who seems to have eased into this B-movie camera-hog stage of his career, enjoys himself. Too bad we can’t really share the fun.

We probably shouldn’t look to most exorcism movies for physical realism. But this movie doesn’t even gesture towards plausibility. People are supernaturally flung into walls with a force that should kill anyone, and they just groan a little and get up; one woman gets her head slammed onto a bathroom sink hard enough to shatter it, and somehow her skull doesn’t follow suit. This is all caused by Asmodeus, a demon whose ultimate goal is to possess Amorth and infiltrate the Church. The demon starts off in the frail body of a little boy who hasn’t spoken since seeing his father die a year ago. His mother and sister have accompanied him to an inherited Spanish abbey, which we gather was the site of a lot of evil. The demon, apparently there waiting, takes over the kid and demands a priest. They send in a wet-behind-the-ears fellow, and the demon roars “Send another priest!” I liked that a lot, but there’s nothing else here as good.

So this younger priest joins forces with Amorth against this demon, who taunts them with visions of the women they sinned against. I can see how this could have been treated as a feminist wrinkle in the movie’s premise (God is cool, the Church is shady), but in practice it’s bloody, highly sexualized women bashing celibate men around, and it brings up tonal and thematic questions this frequently dumb movie doesn’t have the wherewithal to answer. Maybe the director, Julius Avery, and the five people credited as writers on this thing have made an unconscious indictment not only of the Church but the toxic masculinity that powers it and commits so much evil behind closed gilded doors. We chew this over; maybe the movie is more thoughtful than we’d assumed. But then it’s back to the demon pretending to be a woman biting the head off a bird.

It’s not every movie that suffers in comparison to not one but two William Friedkin exorcism movies. The Exorcist, of course, is an enduring ornament on the gnarled tree of horror. And even The Devil and Father Amorth, for all that it feels like a DVD extra that probably wouldn’t even have gotten the small release it did if Friedkin’s name weren’t on it, has that blandly filmed ritual with a growling, obviously pained woman at its center (possessed or psychologically/neurologically wounded? the movie leaves it open), creating the drama the one-take filmmaking lacks. The Pope’s Exorcist is dramatic bordering on melodramatic, but it doesn’t take any of its own concerns seriously, the way you definitely felt Friedkin and William Peter Blatty did on The Exorcist. This might as well be an Evil Dead film a week early. 

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