I watched The Pope’s Exorcist (2023; in theaters) hoping that because it is “based” on a “true” story, it might present a more sober take on possession and exorcism than the normal Hollywood presentation. It did not. I have not read the books by Fr. Amorth on which the movie is supposedly based, but I did watch this documentary a few years ago. It is hard to believe that some of the things in the movie actually happened—not because it is difficult for me to believe in demonic possession or exorcism, but because the events are so similar to so many other possession movies. Woman crawling on the ceiling? Check. Skeletons in the closets of the priests? Check. Unbelievers, until they’re not? Check. Conspiracies that stretch back centuries, and nearly to the top of the ecclesiastical hierarchy? Check. Fr. Amorth (played by Russell Crowe) even invites the demon to possess him in order to save a child! (The most obvious The Exorcist reference, though not the only one.)
Did the real Fr. Amorth really discover a hidden portal to hell underneath a medieval Spanish church? Does Rome really believe that there are 200 locations on earth that mark the places where demons were banished? We even get a perfect sequel set-up at the end: Fr. Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) says, “Let’s go to work.” And Crowe’s Amorth responds, “Let’s go to hell.” I mean, seriously. The acting is solid, but it’s all too much—which further solidifies my opinion that The Exorcist is the only exorcism movie, and everything after is only a (not often original) riff on it.
What can be said for The Pope’s Exorcist is that it seems to take Christianity seriously, at least the Roman Catholic form of it. (Unsurprisingly, a lot of Mariology here, including the silliness, “So do you want to be exorcised today by Jesus or by His blessed Mother?”) There is also the more subtle theme of the perpetual conflict in the earthly Church between, on the one hand, holding to Christian convictions about good and evil, God and the devil; and on the other, “modernizing,” or trying to be relevant to the way that the contemporary world thinks about things. Cardinal Sullivan (Ryan O’Grady), Amorth’s primary antagonist in the Vatican (who seems to me absurdly young to be a Cardinal; I have no idea if there is a minimum age), eventually discovers that he has been mistaken about the reality of the devil and goes on “vacation.” His naïveté parallels that of anyone who does not believe Fr. Amorth’s experiences.
There is, as well, the conspiracy layer to the film, which I assume is not part of Amorth’s books. The central part of the narrative revolves around a widowed mother, Julia (Alex Essoe), and her two children, the traumatized and unspeaking Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) and the sullen and brooding Amy (Laurel Marsden), who are staying in an abandoned church while it is being renovated. This because the church was apparently in Julia’s husband’s family “for generations,” and so they need to fix it up and sell it for the money? Something there feels a little undeveloped.
A demon chooses Henry to possess because of the trauma of being in the car when his father was killed. When Amorth arrives, he discovers a burial place for victims of the Spanish Inquisition. Contrary to normal and expected Hollywood story-telling, though with typical big-budge effects, Amorth discovers that the Inquisition was not carried out by a devout but corrupt Church, but by a demon-possessed exorcist. The source of the inquisitorial power is caged in beneath the church, until the renovations “wake up” the demon Asmodeas. Fine. It’s Hollywood (with a little Dan Brown for sensationalism). But it’s a bit too much for a story that claims to be situated in actual events.