Julius Avery and Russell Crowe invite us to the mouth of hell to witness a bipolar cinematic spectacle. With 2018’s Overlord, Avery proved his talent for directing pulpy action horror films. The Pope’s Exorcist is more of the same, without the full metal jacket and with a few doses of comedy. The film as a whole can’t decide exactly what it is supposed to be, but as a piece of entertaining popcorn cinema, it delivers exactly what is promised.
The short synopsis: Inspired by true events, Father Gabriel Amorth is dispatched to a Spanish abbey to investigate a case of demonic possession, a boy named Henry, while also uncovering a global Vatican conspiracy and fighting against evil to protect his soul and save the world.
If this all sounds unbelievably hokey, it is, while also managing to be miraculously entertaining.
Allegedly “inspired” by the documented experiences of the Italian priest and career exorcist, it is at times difficult to determine the point Avery and Crowe are trying to make. The film is bursting with dramatic embellishment and over the top visual effects, often taking time to masterfully build suspense and dread, while attempting to convince the audience to take it seriously. Structurally, it’s all over the place, weaving a conspiracy involving the Vatican covering up the truth that the Spanish inquisition was perpetrated by demonically possessed catholic priests.
Not just any demonic minions mind you, we’re pointing the finger at Asmodeus, the lustful king of all demons and prince of hell. Asmodeus has done it before, and it is seeking to infiltrate the church once more. Though at one point you can be forgiven for thinking Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) is merely possessed by Mike Tyson.
Rusty’s approach to the character of Gabriel Amorth is interesting. While the promotional material for this film did its best to show the worst of an Australian pretending to be an Italian speaking English, a great deal of Crowe’s dialogue is delivered in Italian. Credit where it is due, this is much more pleasing to the ear. Crowe also lets a bit of himself slip through the character, Amorth is an everyman- not some pretentious waif who cowers behind pomp and process, and Crowe has fun with this at each opportunity. The image of a 59 years old Russell Crowe, the man who played Hando and Maximus, scooting around on a red and white vesper is pure champagne.
An unexpected star of the film is the beautifully gothic abbey, superbly shot partly in and around Trinity College, Dublin. The interior and exterior cinematography and set dressing is spectacular, heightening the themes, suspense and tension of the film’s situations.
Given the subject matter, comparison must be drawn to other “based on true….” offerings. The Pope’s Exorcist is clearly unable to reach the thought provoking, terrifying calibre of Friedkin’s seminal masterpiece but it can be argued that this isn’t the intention anyway. The Pope’s Exorcist opts for comic book spectacle above taking itself seriously.
Surprisingly, Franco Nero fleetingly appears as the Pope. But it is hardly worth mentioning as his character has a heart attack or stroke, projectile vomits blood as soon as the chips are down. It’s a very odd narrative chunk that breaks the pace of events, removes him from the board almost immediately and only serves to add to disbelief when he appears healthy and well during the epilogue.
If all the macabre mystery of demonic possession wets the whistle of impressionable minds, the experiences of real life Gabriel Amorth (1925-2016) are worth seeking out for anybody interested in theology, demonology and home video of people growling and spitting. A more subdued kind of fantastic, there is crossover between worlds. 2017’s The Devil and Father Amorth is directed by Friedkin and 2014’s Deliver Us From Evil (starring another aussie home favourite, Eric Bana) is ‘inspired’ by the work of Ralph Sarchie. A student of and collaborator with Gabriel Amorth in the United States. The Pope’s Exorcist and Deliver Us From Evil would make an interesting double feature.
If your jam is buddy cop movies, flashy visual effects, things growling and bumping in the night… The Pope’s Exorcist delivers an hour and forty three minutes of creepy mayhem with some decent character acting, saving it from the depths of straight to streaming. In cinemas from yesterday (6th April) don’t expect to be remotely scared, this one is packing more Marvel than A24 and coasts along at a passable 6/10 inverted crosses.