By Jesse Burchill
The film “The Pope’s Exorcist” was released on April 14. It is based on the memoirs of Father Gabriele Amorth, a priest and exorcist who had worked for the Vatican for decades and claimed to have performed thousands of exorcisms.
Set in the 1980s, it stars Russell Crowe as Amorth, who is sent to Spain to help an American family. Their young son Henry is possessed by a powerful demon while the family tries to renovate an old abbey. Amorth is assisted by local priest Father Esquibel in freeing Henry’s soul from the grip of the demon.
Russell Crowe is the clear star of the show here - he disappears into his role of Amorth, and plays a caring man who wants to help the people he’s sent to, regardless of whether they are truly possessed.
He often overshadows the rest of the cast - Amorth and Esquibel have much more screen time than the actual family they’re trying to help.
Speaking of the family, the development of these characters fell a bit flat in comparison to the two main priests. Alex Essoe and Laurel Marsden’s performances as a worried and terrified mother and sister respectively, are quite effective. This mirrors how someone might actually react to Henry, the youngest family member, being possessed.
However, their actual development as characters seems rather bland and generic, with their backstory being the common trope of “New House - Horror Ensues.” Furthermore, they don’t even get a last name. Their ultimate fate is mentioned at the end of the film, but seeing this fate actually play out could have been more effective in the end.
Amorth is not the only shining character here. There is a second performance in this film that rivals Russell Crowe’s: Gary Ineson as the voice of the demon possessing Henry.
Ineson’s voice work is incredible. He comes off as genuinely intimidating with a very intense performance as the king of demons. It would not be surprising if demons, should they really exist, sounded like Ineson’s performance.
It wouldn’t really be “The Pope’s Exorcist” without the Pope, and he indeed appears, portrayed by Franco Nero. The Pope is the one who sends Amorth to the family in Spain, and researches the abbey the possession occurred in. The Pope does not have as much screen time as Amorth or Esquibel, but Nero gives a memorable performance nonetheless.
In terms of tone, the film begins with one hell of an opening scene. Amorth performs a house call on an allegedly possessed man without approval from his superiors.
This scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. When Amorth first arrives, he talks with the man’s family downstairs, talking with the daughter about a drawing she made.
All the while, you can hear the possessed man shouting and grunting on the floor above, seeing nothing of him until Amorth heads upstairs. It’s a very creepy scene, and mirrors future scenes within the abbey in how frightening demonic activity can be.
Amorth and Esquibel search for the history of the abbey with the hopes of learning a way to free Henry.
Along the way, they discover the demon’s true power and history within the Catholic Church. This is nothing short of chilling, and a prequel focusing on how this happened may be worth considering.
The tone of religious horror continues into the final exorcism, which culminates underneath the abbey within the rooms discovered by Amorth and Esquibel.
This scene is bolstered by great performances and a strong score, and serves as a culmination of sorts for Father Esquibel’s character development, from a kind yet inexperienced priest to a bona-fide exorcist in his own right.
At the end of the day, “The Pope’s Exorcist” is a cut above most other religious horror movies, with multiple intense scenes, a strong central character, and a very fresh spin on the genre’s actual religious themes.
In spite of its character shortcomings, it manages to be genuinely frightening at times, and stand out in its own right.
B: Fervently creepy