From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“Follow Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s leading exorcist, as he investigates the possession of a child and uncovers a conspiracy the Vatican has tried to keep secret.”
I don’t normally go into discussions like this, but did any of you – by any chance – happen to see the coming attractions for The Pope’s Exorcist?
Again, I’m not trying to pick fights or create any undue controversy here, but – if you did happen to see these trailers – were you all that impressed? Honestly, I thought the adverts looked incredibly campy if not downright unsophisticated, so much so that I can recall turning to my other half and actually asking her, “Good Lord, who do you think Russell Crowe ticked off to find himself cast in such a role?” Without knowing anything about the plot and only being familiar with the circumstances provided by the commercials, I couldn’t help but think that this Exorcist almost looked like it was trying to maybe unintentionally lampoon the whole business of demonic possession, the religious iconography that goes along with it, and what not. Yes, yes, yes: dare I say all of it definitely looked like it was a motion picture beneath the dignity deserving of the Academy Award winning Crowe. I honestly figured it would open to poor reviews, mediocre box office, and the inevitable trash bin of film history.
To my surprise (and delight), it was my wife who suggested that we go to see it at the cineplex. Like me, she can’t refuse a good story centered on possession; and having that subject matter enduring a bit of a drought for us we took it in one Saturday morning. While I’m glad that we did get to see it up in the lights, I’ll also concede that – yeah – it wasn’t anything all that special … but damned if it didn’t seem like Crowe was actually having fun onscreen again?
From what I’ve learned, Exorcist is actually drawn from the real-life experiences of the late Father Amorth, a Biblical scholar, priest, author, and the one of the Catholic Church’s specialists on exorcisms. Wikipedia.org reports that – despite the measure of controversy his work created – the man conducted thousands of ceremonies to cleanse souls of evil; and he’s even left behind a few books detailing the extent to which the Devil – or whatever you choose to call the force of darkness in the world today – has tried manipulating those trapped in their weakest of possible moments. So whether you believe in the possibility or not, Amorth went about his work, and I’ve no doubt he helped improve the lives of so many in pursuit of such good deeds.
Now, having actually read several of the non-fiction books that have been – ahem – sensationalized with silver screen adaptations, I’ve no doubt that that screenwriters Michael Petroni, Evan Spiliotopoulos, and R. Dean McCreary likely went to great lengths to add more than a fair share of – erm – Hollywoodization to Amorth’s tale as told. In fact, I’ll bet that even director Julius Avery was in on the deal of ramping up the scares necessary to give Exorcist the possibility of truly getting good box office receipts … and who can blame them? If you don’t provide today’s audiences with enough sizzle, then they’re not likely going to order the steak; so I expect a good deal of the film’s more colorful and CGI-laden effects sequences are the result of ‘beefing up’ each and every reel to maximum potential. Still, the flick possesses thankfully a fairly one-minded track: there’s the introduction of a history-spanning conspiracy – one used to kick the door open for sequel potential, I might add – but the bulk of the time is spent with Amorth (played by Crowe), and he’s definitely a character all of his own.
Because so much of Exorcist really functions on the traditional Horror formula, I found it hard to muster any real measure of sympathy for Henry and his family. The script paints them as traditional victims far too often, never really giving them enough exposure to make them come to life as what may’ve been authentic people in the trials of Father Amorth. Instead, they’re little more than cookie-cutter creations, sidelined by the battle of good versus evil once it begins. That’s sad because both Essoe and Marsden seemed fully capable of doing so much more here, and maybe they were given some better stuff that ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor.
Furthermore, it’s especially frustrating because Crowe here is given over to some wonderful little character bits – he kinda/sorta flirts with some nuns, he’s self-deprecating about his written works to a fault, and he steals a drink of liquor from a flask more than once, etc – and he makes the most of them. Paired up against the prim and proper Esquibel, they’re almost like a religious-themed Laurel and Hardy (Abbott and Costello? Starsky and Hutch?) on occasion; and that relationship – though light-hearted and shown sparingly – really gives Exorcist its better moments. Amorth becomes more than a character in a play/movie: it’s easy to see how some of these quirks might very well have descended from an actual living and breathing person, and that’s a refreshing addition to an otherwise systematic demonic encounter.
As you can guess, the script gets bigger and bigger in the finale – would Hollywood accept anything less? – and that cheapens some of what felt like real moments. Amorth is even given a bit of a flashback history involving a personal failure that gets in the way more than it helps define his character, but who amongst us doesn’t appreciate a priest putting his own demons to rest alongside everyone else’s? It’s all packaged and presented in such a way as to leave it necessarily wide open for a sequel … and I did hear on the news the other day that producers have begun putting something together for a follow-up.
The Pope’s Exorcist (2023) was produced by Screen Gems, 2.0 Entertainment, Loyola Productions, and a few more participating partners. (A full list is available for those interested on IMDB.com.) The film is presently playing theatrically across America. As for the technical specifications? This was a well-budgeted production; as such, there are plenty of high-quality sights and sounds for those expecting to be entertained by dark pursuits.
Even something as imperfect as The Pope’s Exorcist (2023) can be made better when you have a master of acting talent like Russell Crowe defending the forces of goodness and mercy. His participation alone gives the feature the spine necessary to support nearly all of the weight, and I’m not sure another talent could’ve shown up and provided the same backing. In fact, the film’s best when it just revels in the character of this somewhat dowdy yet occasionally sanctimonious do-gooder. The story is a bit rote, and the special effects get in the way at times more than they complement the narrative. Come for the villain, but you’ll likely leave rooting for the good guys in black once more.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that I took in a local screening of The Pope’s Exorcist on my own dime! So – as you can guess – there’s absolutely no influence whatsoever on my opinion of the film.