Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) and Father Gabriele Amorth (Russell Crowe) in Screen Gems’ THE POPE’S EXORCIST.

The Pope’s Exorcist Review – Possessions, Penance, and an Explosive Ending

Ever since Fargo opened its completely fabricated story with “THIS IS A TRUE STORY”, it’s been a little hard to take similar proclamations seriously ever since. The recent Cocaine Bear used “inspired by true events” which meant the truth didn’t even reach the title card. The Pope’s Exorcist is both heavily inspired by the true Don Gabriele Amorth’s life and writings, and his favourite movie: The Exorcist

One night in the 80s, Father Amorth (Russell Crowe) arrives at a house in the Italian countryside and is greeted by a man and his best pig. The man’s son has all the symptoms of possession, but Father Amorth isn’t convinced – the son has been speaking English for the first time, but they also have a television – even so, he wields his medallion and goads the demon to prove its power by possessing the pig. A moment later, the pig is dead and the boy has returned to normal.

When Father Amorth returns to Rome, he is brought before the Vatican Council. For the Catholic church to still be performing exorcisms is unseemly, and Amorth has been asked to vacate his position. But Amorth says that the boy was not truly possessed, and only needed primitive psychology and theatrics to help him. The truth is, very few possessions are by demonic influence – only two percent – but somewhere in Italy, a boy has been possessed by a demon. 

If you’ve seen The Exorcist (or its successors like Insidious), you’ll know where this is going; a young and an old priest team up to fight evil, while the cursed child contorts and causes chaos. The trailers say as much, but they also exclude some juicy new scares, good jokes, and a surprising (and fun) dip into an almost unrelated genre in the end. 

The Real Father Gabriele Amorth
The Real Father Gabriele Amorth

Maybe just as surprising is that Russell Crowe does well with the Italian accent, slight speech and cheeky humour of the beloved Don Gabriele – even if Crowe’s grizzled, imposing exterior doesn’t always match up (Don Gabriele is cute by comparison) – and the jokes land without deflating the thrilling atmosphere. He says “Cuckoo!” to passing nuns to make them giggle, and asks for coffee while mother and daughter stand around wild-haired and crazy-eyed. 

The real life of Don Gabriele raises what would otherwise be a pretty potboiler possession story into something richer (the other actors do well, but have much less to work with). The demon taunts Father Amorth with Don Gabriele’s survivor’s guilt from his time as a partisan rebelling against the axis forces in World War II, and close relationship with the pope is charming.

The first third is the most interested in the real Don Gabriele. It spends time on convincing religious rhetoric and discussion on exorcisms. By the second third, the film is busy delivering The Exorcist. And the last third reveals that they’ve had an impressive budget up their sleeve the whole time; Explosions, effects, and some unexpectedly expensive setpieces take place (the film packs more than just the classic projectile vomiting blood, and the neck-cracking, head-turning scares). If that sounds like three different genres– a documentary, a horror, and (almost) an action/adventure– that’s because it is, but it’s a pleasant surprise how well it meshes. 

Director: Julius Avery

Cast: Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto, Franco Nero

Writers: Michael Petroni, Evan Spiliotopoulos, (based on the books by Gabriele Amorth)

Branden Zavaleta

Branden Zavaleta is a Perth-based film critic. He loves movies that charm, surprise or share secrets. Some little known favourites of his are Ishii's The Taste of Tea, Barboni's They Call Me Trinity, and Kieslowski's Camera Buff.

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