Russell Crowe will have to exorcise his reputation after this Vatican possession melodrama

The Pope's Exorcist

Source: Sony

‘The Pope’s Exorcist’

Dir. Julius Avery. US. 2023. 103 mins.

Time - or an autobiography - will undoubtedly reveal why The Pope’s Exorcist seemed like a good idea to Academy Award-winning actor Russell Crowe. It feels like Richard Burton - a man with significant bills to pay - jumping into Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977, but even more obviously doomed. Supposedly based on the memoirs of real-life Catholic exorcist Gabriele Amorth, it lifts tracts of William Friedkin’s original The Exorcist and grafts them onto a raft of late-1970s/early-80s films (Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror etc) with almost comic ineptitude heavily flagged by Crowe’s cod Italian accent and an incongruous subbing of Ireland and its kindly tax rebate for Italian and Spanish locations.

Dialogue that only Satan himself could have dreamed up

Crowe’s name still has some cachet, even after his turn as Zeus in the latest Thor film, and he goes full Orson Welles in Domecq ad mode in his portly cassock and hat driving to ‘Castille’ in Spain from ‘Rome’ on his moped. Sony refused to preview The Pope’s Exorcist before slipping it into selected cinemas globally on Easter weekend ahead of its US launch, and the reasons why are clear. The only surprise is that even after all the silliness, Julius Avery’s film, credited to five writers at various stages, is confident enough to try set itself up as a franchise. Not to give anything away,  but 19 more of these are threatened in what someone at Screen Gems seems to think is a potential Pope-o-verse.

Stitched together from better pictures - all of which viewers would be better advised to check out - The Pope’s Exorcist’s one saving grace is Crowe who still, despite the hound of hell that is this film, is a significant screen presence who commits to some dialogue that only Satan himself could have dreamed up. (‘Exorcism is my business,’ etc.) Worse, the peppy Father Amorth is given to the occasional humorous tic and the odd dad joke as he takes on a young Spanish prelate played by Daniel Zovatto (who hails from Costa Rica) as his apprentice when one of Lucifer’s former angels decides to possess a young American boy who is living in a haunted set/abbey in ’Castille’. 

After an opening coda involving a pig posession, The Pope’s Exorcist moves to Rome, or, at least, drone shots of the Holy See. Not everyone in the Vatican is on Father Amorth’s side in his belief that evil exists, and they all crush behind a tiny table inside a small conference room to threaten this cheeky chappie to behave himself in future. The Pope, played by Franco Nero, is confined to a single pokey chapel as he sends Father Amorth off in pursuit of the devil. Space was clearly at a premium at the Vatican back in 1987, when this film is set. And this is some sort of marvellous Vespa too, that can go all the way to Spain with its rather hefty cargo.

What to say about the San Sebastián Abbey in Castille? There’s production design and there’s The Pope’s Exorcist, put it that way, which, by the end, comes to resemble a left-over set from the last Mummy film. A recently-widowed American mother (Alex Essoe) of two grumpy teenagers has arrived to renovate this weird backlot pile in Wicklow, disturbing some barely-contained malignant forces which go back to - oh yes - the Spanish Inquisition, which nobody could have expected. Soon, her traumatised younger son (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney)  is speaking with Ralph Ineson’s voice and complaining that she didn’t breastfeed him. ‘You’re all going to die,’ is his much-repeated refrain. It’s not fair to criticise child actors because it is never really their fault for many reasons, but technically, including effects, this possession is manifestly sub-Linda Blair - and that film shot 50 years ago.

On the bright side — through the film’s decidedly soupy look - Jed Kurzel’s score is terrific. The Long Library at Trinity College in Dublin, one of the Ireland’s most identifiable historic sites, looks like the Vatican Library should look, but possiblly doesn’t (we’ll never know). And Russell Crowe, the scamp, somehow comes out of this with the cheque cashed and his reputation just about intact.

This film was announced in 2020, opting, as mentioned, for an Irish shoot with Australian post-production,  and one can only assume there have been leftover Covid-19 ramifications for the production to deal with, even though the main problems most evidently lie with the script. The fact that everyone involved thought this was a good idea, though, is somehow far more terrifying than anything onscreen.

Production companies: Screen Gems, 2.0 Entertainment, Loyola Productions,

Worldwide distribution: Sony

Producers: Doug Belgrad, Michael Patrick Kaczmarek, Jeff Katz

Screenplay: Michael Petroni, Evan Spiliotopoulous. Screen story: R. Dean McCreary, Chester Hastings, Jeff Katz. Based on the books by Gabriele Amorth

Cinematography: Khalid Mohtaseb

Production design: Alan Gilmore

Editing: Matt Evans

Music: Jed Kurzel

Main cast: Russell Crowe, Franco Nero, Ralph Ineson (voice), Alex Essoe, Daniel Zovatto, Peter DeSouza-Feighoney