Before we begin, let’s make something clear: Russell Crowe’s Father Gabriele Amorth is a cool priest. How cool is he? He’s so cool that whenever he exits Vatican City he rides a vespa while bathed in perpetual sunset. How cool is he? When that vespa crosses the Ponte Sant’Angelo his film throws up a title card that reads “Rome, Italy” (in case there’s a yokel out there who’d confuse it with Rome, Georgia). How cool is he?! When he speaks with an Italian accent, it’s like Chico Marx has risen from the grave and come back with the swagger of Serpico.
This call and response is necessary because you need to know that Crowe’s exorcist is the most BDE exorcist we’ve had onscreen in ages. He’s also something of a saving grace for The Pope’s Exorcist, a movie that could be the stuff of fire and brimstone with a lesser lead performance.
For this writer, these are happy tidings that land with the crack and thunder of revelation. After all, I was led to believe The Pope’s Exorcist was a damnable monstrosity—a cinematic abomination so blasphemous that its studio felt compelled to hide it from critics, showing it to us a mere handful of hours ahead of Thursday night previews. Yet, while I’d hesitate to call this movie the labor of a miracle worker, it’s certainly no unholy mess, and much of that comes down to Crowe’s warmly hammy performance. He knows he’s in a film closer to Exorcist II: The Heretic than the original masterpiece. Even so, his undeniable affection to be here elevates the proceedings into something enjoyable. It’s schlock that’s found salvation.
It’s also ostensibly based on a true story, with Gabriele Amorth being a real priest who operated as chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome from 1986 until his death in 2016. However, lest viewers were to take this film’s events too much to heart, the fact the titular Pope looks more like Spaghetti Western star Franco Nero (who plays the role) than he does John Paul II should be some type of omen. In the end, the 1987 setting appears more inspired by the box office success of The Conjuring films than anything approaching reality—and when graded on that curve it’s certainly better than The Conjuring 3 and any of the others not directed by James Wan.
All that being said, in the film’s universe Pope Django I sits on the throne of St. Peter, and Crowe’s Father Gabriele is a tough-talking, wisecracking, and totally chill exorcist. He also rolls his eyes at the Vatican’s middle management because he and Papa Pancho are tight. Hence when it’s the Holy Father who takes Gabriele aside to say there is a case brewing in Spain, and it is bad, Gabriele knows this isn’t (only) the same old Linda Blair routine in the offing.
Deep in the remote wilds of Spain, a blandly sweet and underdeveloped American family, consisting of widowed single mother Julia (Alex Essoe), rebellious teenage daughter Amy (Laurel Marsden), and a quiet, traumatized little boy they call Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), has recently moved to the area to settle the deceased father’s estate. This includes renovating and selling a forgotten abbey from the Middle Ages. Yet when construction workers nick an ancient seal of the Papacy, which hides secrets dating back centuries, a demon with a very long memory is unleashed.
By the time Father Amorth arrives, Henry’s been good and possessed, and it looks like the typical Exorcist checklist, which has become so rote after 50 years that the beats almost suggest an R-rated theme park ride: a distorted child’s face here, the voice of an elderly chain smoker coming out of the mouth of babes there, and a contorted neck twist are all accounted for. But the deeper Gabriele and the young priest Father Tomas (Daniel Zovatto) dig, the more sinister this ancient deviltry becomes.
The strength and pleasure in The Pope’s Exorcist comes largely from Crowe’s performance. However, it bears noting that director Julius Avery and production designer Alan Gilmore build some impressively Gothic sets, particularly when the priests begin exploring what lies beneath the church. Still, it’s Crowe’s simultaneous light but heavy-handed touch that makes it all go down smooth. Now firmly supplanted in the stage of his career where paycheck roles take this Oscar-winner to browner pastures, Crowe never looks miserable such as when Olivier or Burton found themselves in similar fare. Instead there’s a twinkle in the great thespian’s eye as he belabors the authenticity of his Roman priest in sequences where he impressively speaks in fluid Italian, and not so impressively dons an Italian accent worthy of the cast of the House of Gucci.
A key difference, though, is it sits comfortably in this movie, as does Crowe. The charm carries the film over its trashier beats, such as when poor Henry tries his damndest to top Regan MacNeil but never comes close. But even as it plays the hits, there’s a sly confession by Avery who seems to know a lot of this has become kitsch, such as when Father Tomas first attempts to comfort young Henry, who’s been calling for a priest, and is then immediately expelled from the room by an unseen force. “Wrong fucking priest!” the demon cries.
As the film eventually digs deeper into its narrative and (very) lightly alludes to the Catholic Church’s centuries-long habit of covering up sins and depravities, the better the film becomes. And by movie’s end, it’s nothing short of a massive showpiece for Crowe to go full tilt and chew every cursed bit of scenery around him as he approaches the mouth of hell.
Is this ultimately a good movie? No, it is not. Is it an entertaining one? Does the Pope have an exorcist?
The Pope’s Exorcist is in theaters now.