Surprise! Russell Crowe was a perfect choice for Father Gabriele Amorth.
After enduring yet another Vatican inquiry into his methodology, Father Gabriel Amorth (Russell Crowe) receives a fresh assignment from The Pope (Franco Nero). The year is 1987, and having investigated numerous possessions in his past, Amorth is well-suited in assessing what may be mental illness and what is a threat to Christendom. His newest charge takes him to the former Abbey of San Sebastian in Castile, Spain, an inherited property being renovated by an American woman named Julia (Alex Essoe). Julia’s son Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) begins showing signs of possession as observed by Julia’s daughter Amy (Laurel Marsden) and advising local priest Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto). Faster than you can say “pea soup,” evil manifests throughout the abbey, threatening to reveal a Vatican secret with historic implications. Can Father Amorth save the day, or is he being led to his doom?
While Father Amorth was a real exorcist who wrote countless articles and books on the subject — even co-founding the Vatican-recognized International Association of Exorcists — the filmmakers acknowledge their film is almost pure fiction aside from its inspirations. What’s true is 98% of reported possessions are the product of trauma and mental illness, something better referred to the medical community than men of the cloth. The remaining 2% is muddled with a public perception of films like and inspired by The Exorcist to fill the sandbox this film plays in, embellishing for the sake of entertainment rather than drawing from published facts. The trailers appear entertaining if a bit derivative, with flashes of Crowe’s character suggesting he may not be as central as the advertising suggests. The real question everyone is asking: is Amorth an exorcist for the Pope or of the Pope?
Much like a classic James Bond movie, Father Amorth is introduced finishing up on his previous charge before pivoting away to a new mission, catching up to our quirky hero who takes himself far less seriously than his job title suggests. This easy-going seen-it-all priest echoes Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Father Trevant in The Rite, which is why Crowe’s participation is initially suspect; as a side note, Amorth reportedly trained the actual Father Trevant, so there’s a canonical connection. “The Devil hates jokes,” Amorth reveals, “so learn some.” What makes the film work is Crowe’s attachment to the attitude and belief of Father Amorth in spite of the standardized Hollywood fare of floating beds, fiery glyphs, and people thrown through the air. It’s almost as if the late priest — who sold the rights to his story in 2015 before his death — is haunting the film himself: “If this is what it takes for people to believe evil is real and can be defeated, so be it.”
While neither as impactful or original as Stigmata, it’s surprisingly watchable and all-inclusive. While the transplanted American family is introduced as an expected disposable body count, these characters don’t just disappear whenever it’s convenient. The same goes for expectations of the local priest initially in way over his head; Amorth forgets nothing and no one, putting himself in the line of fire exactly the way a survivor dares to hope for and questioning anyone who assumes otherwise. He understands he is also fallible but refuses to give up, an infectious perseverance and leadership quality that encourages folks to stand together. With an atmospheric production that counts down like a checklist of demonic possession flicks, the repeated in-story reminders that none of it should be taken too seriously goes for both the characters and the audience. It’s also worthy to note the plot similarities to The Nun, as if someone thought, “Oh, we can do better than that,” and damn well proved it.
With Overlord-director Julius Avery at the helm, the genre pedigree is visible in the writers, including The Rite scribe Michael Petroni and The Unholy scribe Evan Spiliotopoulos. It should come as no surprise that The Pope’s Exorcist borrows a few of the best elements from the Paramount Plus streaming show “Evil” (with the exception of the “X-Files” elements), but it more accurately leans into franchise territory with a parallel to The Warrens’ exploits sensationalized for The Conjuring films and their spin-offs. Interviews describe Crowe as a huge fan of Father Amorth and down for more silver-screen exorcism, so don’t be surprised if this exorcist gets a sequel of his own.
The Pope’s Exorcist is rated R for violent content, language, sexual references, some nudity, and jeering at the Devil.
Three skull recommendation out of four