The only way The Pope’s Exorcist makes any sense as a movie would have been if it had been made way back in 1979 as an outrageous stoner comedy starring Don Novello’s beloved Father Guido Sarducci in the title role and produced by the people who brought us Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke.
THE POPE’S EXORCIST ★ (1/4 stars)
But as a self-serious horror drama that fictionalizes the real-life exploits of the late author and Catholic priest Father Gabriele Amorth into an absurdly plotted, blood-drenched haunted house movie, The Pope’s Exorcist arrives in theaters Friday the 14 with all the vitality and vivaciousness of a 15th century corpse.
Directed by Julius Avery, the Australian who brought a Grand Guignol bravado to Overlord, his 2018 war movie zombie thriller mashup, the moribund movie boasts a single bright spot: the light on its feet, almost tongue in cheek lead performance by Russell Crowe. (Thank goodness the Oscar winner manages to navigate a light Italian accent with more aplomb than he did the singing in 2012’s Les Misérables.)
Crow’s Amorth—who shows his insouciance by lightly teasing the nuns in the Vatican and traveling to his harrowing assignments on a Vespa like Audrey Hepburn drove in Roman Holiday—seems to not take his unusual life’s work all that seriously. Whether facing down a Vatican Council that doubts the necessity of a house exorcist or bantering with the prince of demons himself, he brings a much-needed playfulness to a movie that is otherwise bloated with a self-importance that’s matched by its absolute disinterest in its characters.
This is most apparent in its treatment of the central family in the story, an indifferently drawn trio of hapless Americans who have the misfortune of inheriting an abbey with a dark past dating back to the Spanish Inquisition. When youngest child Henry starts tearing at his face and talking in the voice of a 75-year-old Marlboro smoker, the Church steps in to offer help. Here’s hoping that hazel-eyed newcomer Peter DeSouza-Feighoney, making his film debut as Henry, was not unduly scarred by either the harrowing tasks he was asked to commit on screen or the script’s preposterous dialogue.
In light of everything we have learned about the Catholic Church in the decades since the release of William Friedkin’s landmark 1973 film The Exorcist, movies like this have shifted in meaning dramatically. Rather than landing as truly scary, the film feels like a distraction from the Church’s real-life horrors, mixed with something like wish fulfillment on the part of true believers. Wouldn’t it be great if the Church’s systemic and atrocious misdeeds were the work of the devil and not the product of its own doing?
Just last week, a long-gestating report from the Maryland Attorney General revealed more than 150 Catholic priests and others connected to the Baltimore Archdiocese sexually abused over 600 children over the course of eight decades—while church leaders covered up the crimes. The Pope’s Exorcist makes passing mention of sex abuse taking place inside the Vatican (which was a real concern of the actual Father Amorth), but the filmmakers treat the issue with the same indifference they show to every other element of the movie outside of its blood-splattering finale.
Ultimately, The Pope’s Exorcist is a reminder that, with all due respect to Friedkin and William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist’s Academy Award-winning screenwriter and creator, the greatest all-time exorcism movie had nary a demon in sight.
Tom McCarthy’s 2015 Spotlight, which told the story of the the journalists who first uncovered the sexual abuse by priests and the Church’s unrelenting coverup of those crimes, is a film that remains—despite winning a Best Picture Oscar—largely under-appreciated.
It is under the bright cleansing light of journalistic inquiry, not the cheesy half-light of overwrought B-movie horror, that the Church’s demons were ultimately confronted, if not quite banished. Unless Hollywood finally and honestly contends with the truth that not only McCarthy’s movie laid bare but also continues to dominate the news cycle, it should keep its Catholic-themed horror pictures locked in darkened catacombs for eternity.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.