The Pope’s Exorcist was a surprise hit when it was released early in 2023, but the entertaining horror movie, starring Russell Crowe, was just the latest in an endless string of glossy exorcism tales churned out by filmmakers over the decades.
Public interest in the process of exorcisms first skyrocketed when director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty launched The Exorcist upon an unsuspecting world back in 1973, having based the iconic film on Blatty’s novel. Friedkin admits that he was inspired to the point of obsession when he was making the movie, but it wasn’t until much later that he decided to meet the most famous real life exorcist of all, Father Gabriele Amorth, who had not only seen The Exorcist, but surprisingly championed it.
“Of course, the special effects are exaggerated,” Amorth told The Sunday Telegraph. “But it is a good film, and substantially exact, based on a respectable novel which mirrored a true story. People need to know what we do.”
So the late Amorth may well have been thrilled to see Gladiator star Crowe play him onscreen in The Pope’s Exorcist this year. Based on the books An Exorcist Tells His Story and An Exorcist: More Stories written by Amorth himself in the 1990s, the film sees Crowe’s version of the notable priest travel to Spain to assist in the exorcism of a diabolically possessed boy after his family move into a crumbling old abbey full of disturbing secrets.
Born in Modena, Italy in 1925, the real Amorth became a Roman Catholic priest in 1954. Just over thirty years later, he was appointed an exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, and after four years in the role he founded the International Association of Exorcists, where he remained president until he retired in 2000.
“From the age of 15 I knew [the church] was my true vocation,” Amorth said. “I knew nothing of exorcism — I had given it no thought — until June 6, 1986 when Cardinal Poletti, the then Vicar of Rome, asked to see me. There was a famous exorcist in Rome then, the only one, Father Candido, but he was not well, and Cardinal Poletti told me I was to be his assistant. I learnt everything from Father Candido. He was my great master. Quickly I realised how much work there was to be done and how few exorcists there were to do it. From that day, I dropped everything and dedicated myself entirely to exorcism.”
At one point, Father Amorth claimed to have performed 160,000 exorcisms over the course of his ministry, a number that was largely questioned. Amorth addressed this considerable tally by explaining that some exorcisms took minutes, while some took place over several hours, hinting that each single prayer could count as an exorcism, and saying that some people require hundreds of exorcisms and are possessed by many demons.
The church first tackles exorcisms by taking into account whether they’re major or minor cases, and only after a complete medical and psychiatric examination has been completed. A minor exorcism may include prayers or invocations delivered by a priest and any other people who have gathered to join in, but when it is thought that demonic possession is involved, the Psalms and Gospels may be read, along with exorcistic prayers. As in the movies, holy water, crucifixes and the sign of the cross may be used in when performing the rituals.
“Satan is pure spirit,” Amorth said. “He often appears as something else, to mislead. He appeared to Padre Pio as Jesus, to frighten him. He sometimes appears as a raging animal. The ritual of exorcism is not practiced by an ordinary priest. An exorcist requires specific training and must be thought to have a personal sanctity. He can be exposed to dangerous behavior and personal threat. His prayers often cause a violent response as he attempts to shine a beam of light into the darkness.”
After Exorcist director Friedkin finally met Amorth – describing him as having a “razor-sharp” mind and a jovial manner – he released the 2017 documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, which featured footage of the ninth exorcism of an Italian woman in the village of Alatri, as performed by Amorth.
“Today Satan rules the world,” Amorth told Friedkin. “The masses no longer believe in God. And, yes, Satan is in the Vatican.” Much like Crowe’s portrayal, Amorth also had a delightful sense of humor. “Do you know why the Devil is afraid of me? Because I’m uglier than he is.”
Amorth was 91 when he passed away in 2016 after being hospitalised for pulmonary complications. He remained dedicated and resolute before he departed the mortal plane, saying “When I get to the Good Place I will continue to fight the Devil even harder.”
With The Pope’s Exorcist teasing 199 possible sequels in the future, it looks like Amorth’s legacy will continue to be embedded in pop culture for many years to come.