The Pope's Exorcist
Dir. Julius Avery (2023)
The Vatican's exorcist investigates the possession of a child and uncovers secrets of a religious conspiracy.
I'm generally not a huge fan of possession movies. Possession films are often made by and for people who have just the basest understanding of religion and often disrespect even the rules that the movie itself has established. This sort of makes sense, as religion is an incredibly complicated topic to deal with in such a short period of time, and you have to keep it simple enough that those who don't follow the religion will still understand.
Father Gabriel Amorth (Russell Crowe) serves as the chief exorcist for the Vatican. Under fire for his articles about a secret that the Church is trying to hide, he is called to potentially perform an exorcism on a young boy in Spain who was recently brought by his mother to a church they are planning to restore. The boy is possessed by a powerful demon and Father Gabriel must deal with the demons of his own past to cast out the demon and restore the boy's soul. Of course, the demon is actually after the soul of Amorth himself, and the sins of the Church, from the Inquisition to present day, come back to haunt all who are present.
The Pope's Exorcist is a typical exorcist flick for the most part, and the story isn't anything new. The quality, however, is stellar, much better than I expected and one of the better films in the genre in recent memory. Russell Crowe is outstanding as Father Amorth, a real-life exorcist whose life was memorialized in a documentary by none other than William Friedkin in The Devil and Father Amorth. Alex Essoe (Starry Eyes) is equally impressive as
Julia, the boy's mother, and Peter DeSouza-Feighoney does a great job carrying a good bit of the load as the possessed Henry. Everyone in the film is good, though, a rarity for the genre with one of the smallest hit:miss ratio in horror.
Almost everything in the film works. The score, the soundtrack, the set design, the cinematography: it's all there. The gore, surprisingly good (especially for a possession movie) at the end, is shocking and effective. The theological foundation of the film is fairly sound (though perhaps more on that at another time), and the concept of tempting the priests with their own past misdeeds works well despite its lack of originality. The house at the center of the story, an old building owned by the Papal State, is almost a character unto itself, a vestige of the Old Ways and filled to the brim with the Church's own malevolent history.
Despite the film's good choices, and there are many, it doesn't completely stick the landing. The fairly heretical choice to make the demon Asmodeus take the form of Jesus is jarring and effective, but it feels like it's there more for shock value than for narrative purposes. The film's entanglement with the Spanish Inquisition, a provocative choice that suggests an absolution for the Church of its own sins rather than forcing it to atone, is intriguing nonetheless. It's a novel approach, one that I have never heard discussed before, and the film does a great job of fleshing out the theory that those long-ago evils were performed under the banner of Satan rather than God. By and large, however, there's very little missing from The Pope's Exorcist, and while it can feel a little rote at times, it largely avoids falling into the same pitfalls to which most films in the genre succumb.
From someone who doesn't generally appreciate possession films, The Pope's Exorcist is a damned good one. There are enough genre staples to keep the horror fans happy, and there's no outright disrespect of the religion that would drive away others. The film's basis in reality, or at least "reality," is an interesting choice, and it feels like Screen Gems is trying for its own potential Conjuring Universe based around the real human at the center of the story. However, if the followup films, which are practically promised in the film's closing moments, are as good as this one, I fully welcome a new horror franchise into the zeitgeist of possession films.
Who this movie is for: Exorcism movie fans, Possession aficionados, Monty Python
Bottom line: The Pope's Exorcist is an excellent take on the possession genre, and it's on point from the top to the bottom. Almost every part of the film works, and the parts that don't are easily dismissable and still fairly enjoyable. The movie feels like it's begging for sequels, and I'm fairly certain that Screen Gems is going to give it a chance at receiving them. As long as they can keep Russell Crowe, who was fantastic as always in the film, they've got a shot. You can check this one out on Netflix now, and I recommend giving it a shot.