Review: ‘The Pope’s Exorcist,’ starring Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto, Alex Essoe and Franco Nero

April 13, 2023

by Carla Hay

Daniel Zovatto and Russell Crowe in “The Pope’s Exorcist” (Photo by Jonathan Hession/Screen Gems)

“The Pope’s Exorcist”

Directed by Julius Avery

Some language in Italian, Spanish and Latin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1987, in Italy and in Spain, the horror film “The Pope’s Exorcist” (based on a real person) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Catholic priest Gabriele Amorth defies a cardinal’s orders not to perform exorcisms, and the priest is sent by the Pope to do an exorcism on a boy at an abbey in Spain that has a connection to the priest’s past. 

Culture Audience: “The Pope’s Exorcist” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Russell Crowe and exorcism horror movies, but the movie’s frequently ludicrous plot and oddly placed comedy make it a substandard horror flick.

Pictured clockwise, from upper left: Peter DeSouza-Feighoney, Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto and Alex Essoe in “The Pope’s Exorcist” (Photo courtesy of Screen Gems)

In “The Pope’s Exorcist,” Russell Crowe hams it up as an Italian priest who performs exorcisms. But the jokes aren’t funny enough to make “The Pope’s Exorcist” a comedy, and the exorcisms aren’t scary enough to make it an effective horror movie. It’s just a loud and incoherent mess. The demon-fighting, alcohol-guzzling priest portrayed by Crowe comes across more like a drunk who’s a failed stand-up comedian than a formidable clergy person who is skilled at exorcism.

Directed by Julius Avery, “The Pope’s Exorcist” clearly wanted to make the movie’s title chararacter someone who isn’t a typical exorcist. But all the mediocre and often-cheesy jokes in the film just undermine the scenes that are supposed to be deadly serious. It’s a movie that tries to be amusing and terrifying and ultimately fails at being either or both. Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos wrote the disjointed screenplay for “The Pope’s Exorcist.” The screenplay is based on 1990’s “An Exorcist Tells His Story” and 1992’s “An Exorcist: More Stories,” two of the memoirs of real-life controversial Catholic priest Gabriel Amorthe, who was the official exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, from 1986 to 2016. Amorthe died in 2016, at the age of 91.

“The Pope’s Exorcist” opens with a scene taking place in June 1987, when Father Gabriele Amorth (played by Crowe) visits a family at a farmhouse in Tropea, Italy, in order to perform an exorcism. (“The Pope’s Exorcist” was actually filmed in Ireland.) Father Amorth is accompanied by an assistant named Father Gianni (played by Alessandro Gruttadauria), who mostly just stands by while Father Amorth does the talking and exorcism rituals. The family has a son in his late teens named Enzo (played by River Hawkins), whom they think is possessed by the devil.

When Father Amorth and Father Gianni arrive at the farmhouse, Father Amorth saunters in and takes his time before he gets around to attending to the hissing and convulsing Enzo, who’s in a nearby bedroom. Father Amorth barely says anything to terrified parents Carlos (played by Jordi Collet) and Adella (played by Carrie Munro), who don’t say much to him either. Instead, Father Amorth zeroes in on the couple’s unnamed daughter (played by Laila Barwick), who’s about 7 or 8 years old.

Father Amorth asks the girl if she knows any prayers. She says she knows the Lord’s Prayer. Father Amorth tells her that she needs to keep repeating the Lord’s Prayer during the exorcism. The first thing that might go through some viewers’ minds is, “Why would a priest require a child this young to be involved in something this disturbing and possibly dangerous?” Most parents also wouldn’t want to put their child through the trauma of watching an exorcism.

But “The Pope’s Exorcist” wouldn’t exist if people acted realisitically in the movie. Even in the movie’s context of religious faith being more important than facts, too many people do things that look mindless and illogical. At any rate, the exorcism of Enzo looks like an unintentional parody of exorcisms, with the usual snarls and body contortions that are always seen in these types of movies. The expected “demon voice” is heard also coming from the possessed teen.

When Father Amorth asks the demon what its name is, demon replies: “I am Legion. I am Satan.” (The acting in this scene is horrendous.) Father Amorth than taunts the demon by saying if the demon is so powerful, the demon should be able to possess anyone in the room.

And what does the demon choose to do? The demon takes possession of an unlucky wild boar that’s in the room. Carlos quickly shoots the boar. The demon miraculously goes away. Enzo is no longer possessed. And that’s the end of that exorcism. Father Amorth is satisfied that he has completed another successful exorcism.

But not so fast. Father Amorth is later seen going to a stern meeting before a panel of five Catholic clergymen in July 1987. It’s a formal hearing in Rome, where Father Amorth is being reprimanded for performing that exorcism of Enzo in Tropea, because the exorcism was not officially authorized by the Vatican. Father Amorth also has to answer for other unauthorized exorcisms that he performed.

Father Amorth is a wisecracking “rebel” who tries to use prickly jokes and sarcasm to get himself out of contentious situations. He explains to the panel that 98% of the exorcisms he’s called to do aren’t real exorcisms. “They just need a little conversation … and a little theater.” Father Amorth says that 98% of the people he is told are possessed by the devil are people he refers to psychiatrists.

And what about the remaining 2% of those people? Father Amorth dodges answering that question. Most of the panel doesn’t say anything while Father Amorth defends himself. The person who does the most talking on the panel is Cardinal Sullivan (played by Ryan O’Grady), who is in his late 20s and is openly hostile to Father Amorth.

Father Amorth’s only real ally on the panel is Bishop Lumumba (played by Cornell John), who defends Father Amorth. Days before this meeting, Bishop Lumumba told Father Amorth in a private conversation: “Don’t worry, I will defend your faith.” Father Amorth replied, “My faith does not need defending.”

Cardinal Sullivan announces with a smirk that the Catholic Church will formally vacate the position of exorcist. In other words, Cardinal Sullivan is telling Father Amorth that he’s being fired as the Catholic Church’s chief exorcist for Rome. Father Amorth doesn’t accept that decision. Before the meeting is over, Father Amorth gets up and defiantly tells the panel, “If you have a problem with me, you talk to my boss.” Father Amorth then storms out of the room in a huff.

Meanwhile, an American family of three are driving to a dilapidated abbey in Castilleja, Spain. Julia Vasquez (played Alex Essoe) is a widow who inherited the abbey from her late husband Roberto Vasquez IV (played by Santi Bayón, briefly seen in a flashback), who died in a car accident a year ago. The abbey had been in Roberto’s family for years. In the car with Julia are her two children: rebellious daughter Amy Vasquez (played by Laurel Marsden) is about 15 or 16 years old, while obedient son Henry Vasquez (played by Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) is about 11 or 12 years old.

Conversations in the movie reveal that Julia is financially broke and has no income. The only thing that Roberto left for her in his will was the abbey. Julia has decided to relocate herself and the kids to Spain to refurbish the abbey and sell it, hopefully at a profit. It’s a move that Amy sulks and complains about in the movie, as Amy does things to annoy her mother, such as smoke a cigarette inside the church, flirt with the construction workers, and climb up on unsafe places in the abbey.

Julia is apparently so broke, she can’t afford to stay at a hotel, so she is staying with the kids in the priests’ living quarters at the abbey. It doesn’t take long for spooky things to start happening in the abbey, especially at night. A construction worker is severely burned by lighting a flare near a gas valve. (That’s not supernatural. That’s just stupidity.) This injury is enough for the foreman to have his construction crew quit working on the abbey.

And then the inevitable happens: One of the kids gets possessed by a demon. The unfortunate victim is mild-mannered Henry, who has been mute, ever since his father Roberto died. Henry was in the car during this fatal accident, and he witnessed his father get impaled.

But as soon as the demon possesses Henry, the boy begins to talk. And after being silent for a year, the first words out of Henry’s mouth are: “You’re all going to die.” And then he drags his fingernails hard on his face, leaving deep and bloody scratch marks.

Henry is possessed by a foul-mouthed and lecherous demon. While Henry is possessed, not only are his rants filled with curse words and threats, but he also sexually attacks his mother Julia, by grabbing and fondling her breasts without her consent. The demon yells through Henry: “This baby is hungry, you fat cow! You never breastfed me!”

The demon also demands, “Bring me the priest!” When a priest is brought to the possessed Henry, the priest is thrown across the room, as possessed Henry snarls: “Wrong fucking priest!” We all know which priest this demon wants for a showdown.

Somehow, the Pope (played by Franco Nero) finds out about this demon possession. And before you can say, “silly exorcism movie,” Father Amorth is seen having a one-on-one meeting at the Vatican with the Pope. (In 1987, Pope John Paul II was the leader of the Catholic Church. The Pope in “The Pope’s Exorcist” doesn’t act or sound like Pope John Paul II and has only a slight physical resemblance.)

In this private meeting, the Pope sends Father Amorth to the abbey in Spain to investigate this report of a boy being possessed. The Pope warns Father Amorth that this particular abbey has been problematic in the past for the Catholic Church. “Be careful,” the Pope tells Father Amorth. “This demon sounds dangerous.”

In Spain, Father Amorth meets the family and the young local priest who has been asked to help: Father Esquibel (played by Daniel Zovatto), who appears to be very pious and well-respected. Father Amorth sees for himself that Henry is indeed possessed. When Father Amorth asks the demon what its name is, the demon snarls, “My name is Blasphemy. My name is Nightmare.” Father Amorth quips, “My nightmare is France winning the World Cup.”

Father Amorth does a lot of zipping around on motor scooters, as if he’s some kind “on the go” exorcism delivery boy. Father Amorth is seen driving his Lambretto scooter for the trip from Italy to Spain. Apparently, the Catholic Church apparently doesn’t want to spend money on planes and trains for Father Amorth’s exorcism business trips. And when he’s not on his motor scooter, Father Amorth is gulping down drinks from his ever-present flask of alcohol.

“The Pope’s Exorcist” attempts to give the story some depth by showing that Father Amorth has a dark past that includes the death of a young woman named Rosaria (played by Bianca Bardoe), who is a sore subject for Father Amorth. The Rosaria character is in the movie, just to show another “supernatural force” on the attack against Father Amorth. As shown in flashbacks, there are other things that haunt this unconventional priest, including his experiences when he was in military combat as a young soldier in World War II.

Most of the action scenes in “The Pope’s Exorcist” are poorly staged and sloppily edited. Priests get thrown around and fall from tall heights in satanic brawls, but these priests emerge with no fractures or broken bones, which would surely happen in fights that are this violent. “The Pope’s Exorcist” is overly enamored with its adequate visual effects as being enough to make this movie terrifying. But it’s difficult to feel any terror when the exorcist is walking around cracking jokes.

“The Pope’s Exorcist” also seems to be making up exorcism rules as it goes along. Father Amorth says that he tells jokes because “The devil doesn’t like jokes.” In another part of the movie, he says the only way to get rid of a demon is to find out its real name. But that contradicts the earlier exorcism scene of Enzo being “cured” of demon possession because the demon possessed a boar that was quickly shot to death. And that exorcism doesn’t make sense either, because the demon spirit could still escape from a dead body and possess something or someone else nearby.

As the sardonic Father Amorth, Crowe seems fully game to lean into the wisecracking tone of “The Pope’s Exorcist.” The problem is that the rest of the cast members act like they’re in a life-or-death, grim horror film. Some of the supporting actors over-act and are just not believable in many of their scenes. “The Pope’s Exorcist” might give audiences some chuckles, but it’s the type of absurd horror movie that’s so bad, viewers are more likely to be laughing at it than laughing with it.

Screen Gems will release “The Pope’s Exorcist” in U.S. cinemas on April 14, 2023.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix