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‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ Review: It’s a-Me, Padre Mario!

By Seth Freilich | Film | April 14, 2023 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | April 14, 2023 |


Everyone knows that 1973’s The Exorcist is a stone-cold classic that started an entire horror subgenre. In the last twenty years, there have been a number of good-to-great entries added to the exorcism portfolio — The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Constantine (come at me!), The Last Exorcism, The Rite, The Conjuring, The Witch, and The Wailing, to name a few. Spoiler alert: The Pope’s Exorcist does not join the illustrious company of those films.

However, there’s another pantheon the film can get in line with. The Pope’s Exorcist opens with a scene where Russell Crowe’s Padre Amorth conducts an exorcism* wherein the evil spirit leaves a possessed young man and enters a pig, which is quickly slaughtered. Much like that pig, let’s quickly slaughter the elephant in the room — if you have seen the trailer for this film, you know that Russell Crowe is bringing some accent to this movie, and it’s terrible. So congrats to Mr. Crowe, who joins the pantheon of bad accent movies, which runs the gamut from Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves all the way right back to Russell Crowe and his own Robin Hood

*The film will later have his character explain that this one was part of the 98% of cases that are not actual possessions, but merely the type of situation that requires some conversation, psychology, and theater. Sadly, this is a quick one-off conversation versus what could have been an interesting exploration. But I think even the writers got distracted by Crowe’s accent.

Taking a step back, this film is ever-so-loosely based on the real life of Gabriele Amorth, a priest and official exorcist for the Catholic Church. He claims to have performed over one hundred thousand exorcisms in his life, though he would clarify that this does not mean 100K individual possessions, just times he prayed or conducted a ritual or whatever. It’s gobblygook hokum nonsense, let’s be clear. Anyway, set in the late ’80s, Crowe’s Amorth is brought before some Church council after that pig slaughter exorcism because they don’t believe that the Church needs an exorcist anymore. But he’s the Pope’s guy, so “if you have a problem with me, you talk to my boss!”* And then his boss/the Pope (Franco Nero) sends him off to Spain to investigate a possession, “something about [which] disturbs me greatly” (yes, the Pope feels disturbances in the force).

*With his accent, I’m half surprised he didn’t go with “eh, fucka-you, Imma da Pope’s ghostbuster!”

Here, I’ll pause to praise the single best thing about the film, Crowe’s priest on a moped. We see this a few times and it legit rules.

In Spain, a family dealing with the loss of their, ahem, father figure, has moved into a quiet home. The son (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) quickly ends up bedridden and out of sorts, and, well, you know where this is going. His mother (Alex Essoe) and sister (Laurel Marsden) get a local priest in, who does his best holding down the possessed fort until Padre Amorth shows up. This middle act of the film is the hardest part to get through. While competently put together and paced, it doesn’t offer much. The possession and exorcism stuff is pretty standard, not anything fun or interesting to add to the genre’s oeuvre. And worse yet, the possessed child is not very scary. At a minimum, freak my shit out, son. Instead, he mostly growls out some rote dialogue (“I am your worst fear, I am your demise,” etc.) and promises to corrupt the priests because he knows their sins.

Even as things start to ratchet up in the third act, we keep getting your run-of-the-mill stuff — spider kid climbing the ceiling, people getting whipped around, etc. The film does have one minorly interesting take on possessions by an amped-up super-demon that I won’t give away, although it doesn’t do much with the concept, which is a shame. Similarly a shame, late into the third act the movie finally loosens its collar and lets things go a bit batshit, right around the time it begs a callout to “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” And here, reveling in the preposterous, it finally starts to have some fun. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late to save the film, especially when you consider the movie’s greatest sin. A sin that even Jesus himself has said is unforgivable. A sin that condemns The Pope’s Exorcist to hell. That sin comes in the form of Chekhov’s iron maiden. How are you gonna show an iron maiden, in a horror film, and not put someone in the iron maiden? I say this in the thickest of bad Italian accents while pinching my fingers and waving my hand, “it’s a travesty!”