"The Pope's Exorcist" stars Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto, Alex Essoe, and Franco Nero. Released on April 14, 2023, the film has a priest battling a demon as an exorcist.
The film was directed by Julius Avery, who also directed "Son of a Gun", "Overlord", and "Samaritan". It is based on the memoirs, An Exorcist Tells His Story and An Exorcist: More Stories, by Father Gabriele Amorth. Churches are known for helping people find and retain their faith in God. However, one of them can also ward off vicious demons seeking to damn us to hell, thanks to a specific exorcist who also works as a Catholic priest. It does sound crazy at first, but it's not, as the film is based on the accounts of Father Gabriele Amorth, who claimed to have performed thousands of exorcists during his life. He was also responsible for being one of the priests who founded the International Association of Exorcists, and he was its president until his retirement in 2000. Gabriele Amorth later passed away in 2016 after being hospitalized for pulmonary complications. His work as an exorcist wasn't exactly well-known, at least from my perspective, so Hollywood decided to introduce Amorth's brave actions to its audiences as another basic exorcist horror movie. Could it provide a compelling and terrifying account of the demon-battling priest, or does it make us want to exorcise it out of existence? Let's find out.
The story centers on Father Gabriele Amorth (Crowe). Amorth is a priest who works for the Pope (Nero) to exorcise supernatural demons seeking to provide chaos and unbalance in the Vatican. His latest job brings Amorth to Spain, where he faces a powerful demon (Ralph Ineson) who has possessed a young boy named Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney). As Amorth and his assistant, Father Esquibel (Zovatto), attempt to find a solution to rescue Henry, they eventually discover a shocking conspiracy that's kept secret by the Vatican. As a result, Amorth must rely on his exorcism skills and faith in God to destroy the demon and save Henry and his family.
I was unfamiliar with the real Gabriele Amorth until I discovered they're making a movie based on him. I attended church weekly when I was young, yet I haven't heard anything about the former priest/exorcist during that time. I'm guessing that my usual church doesn't mention much about Catholic Churches in Rome. Regardless, reading about Amorth now as an adult got me curious about how Hollywood would portray Amorth's real-life duty as a basic supernatural holy horror movie. Of course, there were other reasons why I went to this movie, including Russell Crowe as the titular priest and filmmaker Julius Avery, who has yet to find another successful film after 2018's "Overlord". Although, "Samaritan" had the potential to be another hit for the director if it weren't for its narrative shortcomings. These two offer just enough in their talents to make this latest exorcism worth experiencing once. But as I expected, the film doesn't have much faith in its concept to appeal to everyone, settling for another below-average holy horror fare.
The film's story provides plenty of elements we've seen in other horror movies involving demon possession. This includes a family moving into a mysterious old house and a possessed child. It checks off almost every box on its list of supernatural horror cliches that's been invading the movie business for years. While it may be suitable for those looking for another regular demon-possession movie, it can also be excruciating for people wanting something unique in its derivative formula. However, since I knew that the film wouldn't be a masterpiece like "Hereditary" before going in, it made my experience easier to sit through. Regarding its plot and screenplay, "The Pope's Exorcist" won't be singing its praises to the Lord, but it did answer my prayer of being a bleakly atmospheric depiction of the real-life demon-battling priest.
One reason is Julius Avery. The filmmaker has previously delved into horror with "Overlord", so it seemed like a no-brainer that Avery was chosen to deliver his take on the supernatural genre. It's been a long time since I've watched "Overlord", but I remember liking Avery's approach to combining war themes with action and horror. "The Pope's Exorcist" has Avery providing a bleak and unsettling vibe to the demon-possessing scenario regarding its atmosphere and visuals. While it's nothing special for me to write home about, he put in a noticeable effort in making specific viewers think twice about moving into a demon-housing abbey. However, Avery's attempts at providing scares and tension were dull enough to weaken his direction by a few notches, so I'm not expecting any nightmares about it when I sleep at night.
Another reason is Russell Crowe as Gabriele Amorth. The actor was one of the few elements I expected to be serviceable due to his previous works. Unsurprisingly, Crowe managed to meet my expectation without breaking a sweat. Crowe's performance manifested Amorth as a priest full of charm and loyalty. However, Amorth is also secretly haunted by the sins of his past, which could threaten his life. Amorth is unsurprisingly the most interesting character in the movie because he fits the plot's message of self-forgiveness. Crowe did a decent job reflecting Amorth as a character worth caring for and providing some levity that generates plenty of chuckles from me. The rest of the cast did all right with their performances, even though the characters were formulaic and uninteresting. Daniel Zovatto was suitable as Esquibel, and Alex Essoe provided a tolerable presence as Julia, Henry's mother. I will also credit Ralph Ineson for bringing the demon's unsettling and sinister voice to life.
Overall, "The Pope's Exorcist" has plenty of sins preventing it from touching the hand of Hollywood God, even though it has enough tolerable moments to keep its faith slightly intact. It's no surprise that a movie like this met my criteria of being a subpar and mildly creepy piece of holy horror cinema. Although, since it's based on a real-life priest who exorcises demons, this could've been something better or even scarier. Russell Crowe is a standout amid its middling cast regarding his charismatic performance as Amorth, and the atmosphere was welcomingly creepy sometimes. Sadly, they're not faithful enough to successfully exorcise its demonic flaws, including its formulaic plot, average screenplay, and bland scares. If you like Russell Crowe and enjoy watching supernatural horror movies, you might get something decent out of this film, but it won't make you want to praise the Lord at the end of the day.