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Review: The Pope’s Exorcist

The Pope’s Exorcist” is playing currently on Netflix. I’ve been hearing some good things about this movie for a little while, so last night I finally decided to give it a shot.

Truth be told, I’m still a little too undecided to give it an outright thumbs-up or thumbs-down. That can’t be a bad thing then.

Could it?

Like many people, I was first introduced to Russell Crowe in Gladiator (1999), and in the role of Maximus I thought he was perfectly cast. He played that role exceedingly well. However, none of the other roles he’s made headlines for since then appealed to me. Oddly enough, when news of this movie first broke, it drew my attention not for who was acting in it, but for the subject matter.

I’ve been a fan of supernatural and paranormal horror movies for a long time, but what made me hesitant about this one was the name of the actor playing the leading role – and so after putting it off for some time, I finally decided to give it a chance.

The first thing I noticed was that yes, Russell Crowe was much older and bulkier – but of course, it’s been 23 years since Gladiator after all. We all change over time, and I’m no exception either. As for Russell, he played his part again, very well – and most importantly with humor. As a writer myself, humor is one the most important and prominent tools in my toolbox. I’ve often treated some very, very dark subjects with a touch of humor because this serves to both lighten the subject when necessary to keep the viewers glued to the book/screen and also assists the characters to maintain their own composure in the light of the situations they face – as it does in real life.

The exorcist Gabrielle Amorth (Russell Crowe) projected himself as a solid, pragmatic, believable character, a man in touch with his own self, and an understanding of humanity. He is a man of faith, but in a simple, practical, balanced sense. Unlike some of his superiors we are introduced to early in the story, he’s not a priest to follow ambition or to glorify himself in authority or power or influence, he’s just here to answer his calling and to do his job. In the story, he’s familiar with psychology and the law and this is used to good effect to demonstrate the character’s clear grasp of the difference between reality and fantasy – which is vital in dealing with claims of demonic possession (though a trifle more ironic in terms of dealing with daily life in reality it seems, but then, this is fiction).

Aside from all that, what really stood out to me about the role of Gabrielle Amorth was that Crowe spoke Italian extremely well, presenting as not just a man acting like he’d spoken Italian from birth – but convincingly as a native speaker of the language. Whether he learned to speak Italian that way under the tutelage of an Italian teacher specially for this role, or already spoke Italian, is something I found extremely impressive and it lent to the authenticity of this story. Regardless of which of these is true, even if he only learned to pronounce the lines so convincingly in Italian, it still lends a whole new luster to Crowe’s acting ability and versatility in my opinion.

I found the subplots of Amorth’s youthful experiences as a partisan fighter during WW2 as well as the backstory of the scenario that led to the sealing up of the abbey by the Vatican to be immersing and believable. The subplot that suggests a demon so powerful that it cannot be exorcised is quite frightening, if that sort of thing floats your goat. The main plot of a family being terrorized by an aggressive and powerful spirit, needing help from a priest – who calls in another more qualified priest – followed by the usual exorcism, appears on the surface to be basically just a rinse, repeat of several previous movies of this type, again, like “The Exorcist” and its many imitators. Nothing really new there. Or is there?

As the story progresses – at what feels like quite a rushed and overwhelming pace – after all, possessions generally don’t come to this sort of climax overnight – there are hints that all is not as it seems to be, and more is revealed. The subplot that exposes the Spanish Inquisition as being founded by a priest while possessed by this same demon – and all the butchery, torture and evil committed in the name of the Roman Catholic Church – was something I found a little entertaining. Of course, we know this isn’t true – and the organization’s hands are so steeped in innocent blood that they could never ever be cleaned of that – not even in such a fictional context. Nice try though.

The idea that the demon behind all that – Asmodeus, the King of Hell, has been helplessly trapped under the abbey since the 15th century and is trying to find a way into the Church’s new chief exorcist in order to get back into the Vatican – well, that was a little different. Even so, it still struck me as a little odd and not quite 100% plausible. But then, people don’t really watch these sort of movies for plausibility, do they?

The effects and CGI were excellent as we’ve come to expect these days. Henry, the little boy who gets possessed becomes CGI for most of the exorcism scenes which was very convincing – although he more often than not evoked Sméagol in the LOTR. The scenes involving the red birds and levitating women, flowing lava etc. were immaculately executed and very realistic and believable. In only spotted one inconsistency in the entire story, and that’s where the possessed boy bites the top of the younger priest’s ear off and spits the chunk at him – and later on, the priest’s ear looks totally intact. Other than that, the action flowed very smoothly – and quite predictably. Which… is where – for me – this movie started to lose it’s luster.

With a few exceptions, the whole thing felt entirely predictable – from the slow start where the unsuspecting troubled family moves into the big, crumbling haunted house, to the escalation in mysterious events at the abbey, to the sudden progression of the possession. The daughter’s head turning to look at the mother backwards, and then scuttling across the ceiling on all fours looked very realistic, but again, we’ve all seen that sort of thing before, right? So too, the girl being swallowed by her mattress brought back memories of schlock-horror movies like the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.

I kept getting the idea the producers were going for a “Conjuring” or “Ouija” sort of feel, but this movie felt so predictable that I didn’t even have one single jump scare, and basically watched the whole thing without much reaction at all. I laughed once or twice, and not even just at Crowe’s one-liners. Overall, the movie felt just like a flat line on an oscilloscope. This forces me to consider that either I have become so jaded or used to horror movie tropes and effects that this offering left me feeling so totally underwhelmed, or that it just tried too hard to be like hardline classics in this genre like “The Exorcist” by evoking the look and feel and even referencing some of those events or plot devices – but without putting any actual work into exploring them fully. The phrase “too much, too quickly” comes to mind. Actually, I think this movie might’ve been a whole lot better if it had an extra hour or so added onto it – it was just barely 1 hour 43 minutes long, and felt a bit compressed.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh – after all, no exorcism movie made after 1973 is going to compare too favorably with “The Exorcist”, is it? Least of all without looking like it’s trying too hard to evoke the feel or mythos of that original classic. To be fair, “The Pope’s Exorcist” isn’t actually just about the possession of a child, or the effort to cleanse that child of a predatory, parasitic spirit – it does try to add more compelling and grandiose “bigger picture” stuff to the larger story, but this loses efficacy due to lack of time to fully explore this aspect to the story.

By the end of it though, the only things that really took me by surprise was the fact that Amorth managed to beat his possession with the help of the younger priest – and that by the end, the producers had clearly left an opening for a sequel of some kind, to find more “portals to hell” – complete with a secret library at Amorth’s disposal under the Vatican, the younger priest agreeing to join him, and full Papal support! That implication for me, was by far most frightening part of the entire movie!

To sum up then, “The Pope’s Exorcist” was neither here nor there. The only things that held my attention were the few times something dramatic happened (people flying across rooms, being dragged across walls are always a winner), the occasional humor – and again (holy shit!) Russell Crowe speaking Italian like a native! There were some good parts like I said, and the movie made for good, light entertainment with a few funny bits. It was – to meaningfully quote the source material for this story (the Biblical book of Revelations) – “lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — so I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16.).

“The Pope’s Exorcist” scores an underwhelming THREE STARS on the Tinamometer.

Well done to all concerned – more like this please!


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All material copyright © Christina Engela, 2023.

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