Okay, I successfully reviewed all of the THE EXORCIST movies, I’m ready to move past the topic of exorcising. But first I wanted to check out this year’s release THE POPE’S EXORCIST. I know what you’re thinking – The Pope gets to do his own version of THE EXORCIST? But in this case the title does not represent authorship, instead it refers to the title character being the official go-to exorcist for The Pope. Father Gabriele Amorth (1925-2016) was a real Catholic priest who was appointed an exorcist of the Diocese of Rome in 1986. In 2017 William Friedkin did a documentary about him called THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH. I’ll save my views on the real guy for the end and say for now that I find him very entertaining as a jolly pulp hero played by Russell Crowe (THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS).
Crowe basically depicts him as a lovable Italian grandpa – generous with his chuckles, good with kids, full of corny humor (I never quite figured out why he likes to make a cuckoo clock sound at people?). He greets humans, statues and at least one desiccated corpse as “my friend.” Also his girth comically dwarfs the Ferrari scooter that is his preferred mode of transportation.
So you got this goofball as the hero in a horror movie, that’s already a fun idea. But part of the silly joy of this Screen Gems gem is that its way of making exorcists relatable is treating them as ‘80s movie cops. You know how Dirty Harry or Martin Riggs will have some little incident unrelated to the main plot that they handle in an unorthodox manner, infuriating the captain or whoever? Well, Father Amorth is an exorcist who plays by his own rules. This opens with him helping a family in the village of Tropea. Their son is tied to a bed, supposedly possessed, saying evil stuff in English. Amorth taunts the “demon,” basically calling him a loser, saying he couldn’t even possess a farm animal, like this pig he brought with him. When the demon seems to leave the guy, they shoot the pig.
It wouldn’t have occurred to me to compare that to, say, Riggs handcuffing himself to a guy trying to jump off a building, except that in the next scene Father Amorth faces a tribunal at the Vatican, where Cardinal Sullivan (Ryan O’Grady) plays the part of the uptight bureaucrat, dressing him down in a John-Mulaney-ish nerd voice for performing an unauthorized exorcism. That guy has it out for Father Amorth, but luckily he has the support of the (unnamed) Pope, played by the original Django himself, Franco Nero (ENTER THE NINJA).
In that scene Amorth indicates that it wasn’t a real possession, “the boy was maladjusted,” and he just did the pig thing for “the power of suggestion.” They say that 98% of his cases are mental illness and “are then further recommended to doctors and psychiatrists.” That doesn’t justify the other 2% in real life, but I like it for the world-building of this horror movie.
Obviously the movie is gonna center on one of those 2% cases, so we meet American widow Julia Vasquez (Alex Essoe, a Mike Flanagan company player since playing Wendy Torrance in DOCTOR SLEEP), her sulking teen daughter Amy (Laurel Marsden, Ms. Marvel) and her son Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney, soon to play Young Winnie the Pooh in WINNIE THE POOH: BLOOD AND HONEY 2), who hasn’t spoken since he watched his dad die in a car accident. Amy does speak, but rebels by wearing short shorts and crop tops, smoking cigarettes and perching precariously on upstairs handrails. They’ve come to Spain to live in a spooky inherited abbey long enough to restore it.
Soon Henry will start showing signs of possession. DeSouza-Fieghoney is already an impressively strange looking kid, like an EC Comics caricature of the ghost from THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, so he makes a great monster. The movie quickly quelled my “what’s the point of a non THE EXORCIST exorcist movie?” concerns by speeding through the blood test, MRI and spinal tap portion at a quick pace, giving the story an entirely different, more fun, but not less valid tone. Still, it’s genuinely upsetting to see Julia pushed out of there with no answers, and unable to ask questions due to the language barrier.
As soon as they get home Henry’s making evil faces, grabbing Mom’s boobs and, you know, exercising his freedom of speech. One thing politically incorrect Regan lacked in THE EXORCIST was a teenage sister to gasp “What the fuck!?” when she’s out of line. If I hadn’t already been on board with the movie my endorsement would’ve been sealed when the possessed boy, in the voice of Ralph Ineson from THE WITCH, demands “Bring me the priest,” and Julia gets Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto, IT FOLLOWS, DON’T BREATHE, LADY BIRD), who’s been helping with the restoration. He steps in the door and is immediately blasted out as if from a cannon, smashing through a cabinet. “Wrong fucking priest!” the demon yells.
I’m so happy to report that there’s some real spookablastiness to this thing, often reminding me of James Wan, Sam Raimi, and maybe Del Toro’s HELLBOY. It’s not as interested in chilling you to the bone or asking probing questions about spirituality and morality as just showing you a good time. But that’s a worthy pursuit.
One sign that it’s not so serious is that it follows the rules of modern movies set in the ‘80s by having a maxi-single’s worth of Cool ‘80s Soundtrack. Henry listens to the Violent Femmes on his Walkman, Amorth listens to The Cult on his scooter, plus we get two other religiously-named bands (The Saints and Faith No More).
The Pope hears about this (the demon, not the music) and sends in his boy. Father Esquibel gets to act as the rookie partner to the wizened legend as they attempt to Pope’s Exorcist the shit out of this demon, who can bounce around to the bodies of other family members and all kinds of fun demon stuff. The Fathers have some funny banter, like Esquibel says he’s read all Amorth’s articles and Amorth forces him admit he hasn’t read his books, though. “The books are good,” he says.
There’s one scene I totally misunderstood. When they start the exorcism, the demon tries to embarrass them with their worst secrets. He calls Father Esquibel a “panty sniffer” and mocks his “little sweet treat, Adella,” says, “you stood before your congregation like you’re better than them, when you’re fucking their daughters.” And Esquibel seems to confirm the claim by flying into a rage and trying to strangle the kid. I really thought in the moment that one of our two priests was outed as a child molester and would be off the case. But Adella turns out to be an adult he was in love with but left for the priesthood. Okay, yeah, that’s less crazy.
Meanwhile in Rome the Pope consults the archives and discovers something so shocking about the history of the abbey that he has a heart attack. When he wakes up in the hospital he starts muttering to “tell him,” tell Gabriele. And the uptight Cardinal, I swear to you, says, “Amorth? What trouble has he got us into this time?,” and then the Pope projectile vomits blood into his face. I don’t really understand why this happens except that you could not do it in the cop movie so you obviously should do it in the Pope’s Exorcist movie.
They also wisely sidestep the THE EXORCIST structure by doing the exorcism-in-the-bedroom stuff earlier, then discovering a secret chamber beneath the abbey that reveals a secret history. This could be compared to what Father Merrin finds in DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST, but the poppier tone reminds me more of Indiana Jones solving puzzles. Amorth figures out he needs a key that was swallowed by a guy who’s dead inside a cage, and tears into his stomach with his bare hands (that’s the dead body he calls his friend).
While tomb raiding the carvings, iron maidens and journals under the abbey, they make the same shocking discovery that the Pope did (SHOCKING DISCOVERY SPOILER): this demon, Asmodeus, lured The Pope’s Exorcist in because he wanted to possess him and infiltrate the Vatican… as he once did to “the Friar de Ojeda, one of the greatest exorcists of all time,” whose remains they find sitting in a throne. As Amorth puts it, “You know, he is the man who convinced Queen Isabella of the need for an Inquisition. So that means, from the time he is possessed in 1475, everything that happens after this is the work of The Devil. Centuries of persecution and torture, the worst abuses of the Inquisition, all started by the friar, and done in the name of God… by the Devil.”
Important note: according to the Screen Rant article Pope’s Exorcist True Story: 12 Biggest Changes To Father Amorth’s Real Claims, “The Spanish Inquisition Was Not The Work Of Demons.” Good to know! Huge if true.
I don’t entirely know what to make of it. On the one hand, it’s really letting the Inquisition off the hook, to blame a fictional monster dude for the atrocities of real human beings, done in the name of their religion (not to mention the superstitious devil bullshit we pretend is real while watching this movie). On the other hand, I doubt the Catholic Church is big on pretending that hundreds of years of their history were directed by a fictional monster dude. This plot twist is so dumb and so crass and done with such confidence that I have no choice but to get a kick out of it.
I’m also giving the movie a little leeway because it gives Amorth a tragic backstory involving guilt over not listening to a depressed woman who had been molested by a priest, covered up by the church. So it doesn’t really seem like church propaganda. I don’t detect any goals greater than just being a fun horror movie. It has a spooky old building, mysterious knocks on walls, glowing reptilian eyes, messages cut into flesh, running and slamming doors while being chased by a camera, voices of dead loved ones, rapid zooms into terrified faces, flames spewing out of a deep well lined with the skulls of Inquisition victims, digitally stretching mouths, a swarm of crows, levitating, flaming pentagrams, a naked revenant who explodes like the Blood God in BLADE, a part where Amy climbs up the ceiling and smashes her mom’s head through the bathroom sink… all sorts of good shit, all done with style and energy.
Other cop movie tropes: Amorth later thinking about something the demon said, realizing it was a clue. Also making wise ass comments to the villain – when the demon says “My name is Blasphemy, my name is Nightmare” he says, “My nightmare is France winning the World Cup.” There’s a part where he tells Esquibel “You look like shit.” He’s unhappy about having to fill out a report afterwards. Also he carries a flask of whiskey. And I suppose we could count his war hero past (both the real and fictional Father Amorths are proud that they fought against fascists in the Italian resistance). I hope they make a sequel and I hope there’s a part where a Cardinal says, “I want your Bible and your crucifix on my desk now!”
The movie did in fact do pretty well, and they’re reportedly developing a possible sequel. And again, the beauty of the movie is that it’s the type to brazenly ask for one. At the end Father Amorth and Father Esquibel are given a tour of their fancy new headquarters, and they have a map to “the other 199 sites on earth where God is unwelcome,” so they can go after more demons. It’s like Crowe and the world are getting a consolation prize for the loss of the Dark Universe.
THE POPE’S EXORCIST is directed by Julius Avery, who previously did OVERLORD and SAMARITAN. This is easily my favorite of the three, but they’re all good enough to warrant keeping an eye on his future endeavors. The script is credited to Michael Petroni (THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (BATTLE FOR TERRA, HERCULES, SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS), screen story by R. Dean McCreary & Chester Hastings (the team behind FANBOY, the movie about a guy trying to get a part in FOR LOVE OF THE GAME) and Jeff Katz (the young New Line Cinema executive who almost got them to make JASON VS. FREDDY VS. ASH).
There’s a contradiction here I can’t really explain. For some reason it really bothers me that the (quite well made) THE CONJURING movies mythologize real life scam artists as lovable demon hunting heroes, but I had a great time with this horse shit. It helps that as far as I know Father Amorth was not a sleazy scumbag like Ed Warren, but that’s probly not why I reacted differently to this one. It’s probly just as simple as watching it in the right frame of mind.
I do not believe there’s such a thing as demons, so I got some suspicions about anyone who claims to have battled them. Of course the real Amorth was much more laughable than the movie hero. He believed that Hinduism and yoga were satanic, worried about kids reading Harry Potter books, and said that some of his cases were opened up to a demon because they used a Ouija board or “contacted wizards and fortune tellers.” He claimed to have performed either 60,000 or 160,000 exorcisms (depending on the source). He justified that by saying that most of them weren’t full on possessed by demons, and that each prayer or ritual counts as one exorcism, so sometimes one case counts as hundreds of exorcisms. But the math is still very questionable – wouldn’t he have to be exorcisming right and left all day every day for years on end? I’m not gonna call the man a liar but I think he would’ve had to have help from his girlfriend in Canada or somebody.
Amorth said that an exorcist had to be profoundly humble and treasure obscurity. He also wrote more than 30 books, including the bashfully titled The Devil is Afraid of Me: The Life and Work of the World’s Most Famous Exorcist (2019). The movie is credited as based on his first two books, An Exorcist Tells His Story and An Exorcist: More Stories.
So maybe the best praise for the movie is that upon the release of the trailer the International Association of Exorcists, a group Amorth founded and led for its first ten years, denounced THE POPE’S EXORCIST as a “splatter film” and “a show aimed at arousing strong and unhealthy emotions, thanks to a gloomy scenography, with sound effects such as to arouse only anxiety, restlessness and fear in the viewer.”
Yeah man, that’s what I’m talking about! My three favorite types of exorcist films are 1. the ones that get nominated for best picture 2. the crazy sequels to the ones that get nominated for best picture and 3. the ones denounced as “splatter films” by exorcist advocacy groups. Also DRAG ME TO HELL if that counts. Not in that order.