The Pope's Exorcist (2023) The Pope’s Exorcist (2023) -***

     As most of you have probably realized by now, I love a good Exorcist knockoff. Of course, there aren’t but two or three of those in the world, so it’s a good thing for me that I love a really shitty Exorcist knockoff even more. The Pope’s Exorcist is shitty indeed— but more importantly, it’s shitty in a way that I never expected, nor even dared hope, to see again in a first-run film. Although the trailers make it look like a stridently witless action movie built out of long-exhausted horror tropes— something like a Van Helsing for the Trad Cath set— The Pope’s Exorcist is in fact the closest thing to The Tempter or The Eerie Midnight Horror Show that it’s still possible to make today. Better still, as with the Spaghetti Exorcists of yore, its creators weren’t content merely to rip off the most obvious source of inspiration. Indeed, its final and most glorious theft is one that you’ll never see coming, which redeems a modern cliché that I’m thoroughly sick of seeing by carrying it to the most indefensible imaginable extreme.

     Incredibly, The Pope’s Exorcist begins by copying not The Exorcist, but Exorcist II: The Heretic. In 1987, in a remote Italian village, a peasant couple have become convinced that their adolescent son is possessed by the Devil. It only stands to reason, since he’s acting exactly like the little girl in that scary American movie! Fortunately, Father Gabriel Amorth (Russell Crowe, from Romper Stomper and The Mummy) is on the case. Father Amorth is sort of the Darth Vader to Pope John Paul II’s Emperor Palpatine, although I’m sure both men would rather I used a different analogy. He operates outside the regular hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, reporting solely and directly to the pontiff, and carrying out missions beyond the competence of ordinary priests. In particular, Amorth drives out demons, however much the institutional church might like to downplay that it’s still in that business. Amorth asks the malign spirit inhabiting the boy a few questions, then has a pig brought into his sickroom. The priest taunts the demon into jumping from boy to animal, and immediately thereafter has the pig shot, before Satan’s minion has a chance to realize its mistake.

     But although this exorcism is obviously a great deal more successful than the one that got Father Lamont into trouble in Exorcist II, the College of Cardinals is no happier about it. Especially unhappy is Cardinal Sullivan (Ryan O’Grady), a young firebrand of a modernizer who received his red hat only recently, and who is determined to move the church beyond the kind of Medieval bullshit in which Amorth trades. There are strict procedures for authorizing an exorcism nowadays, and Sullivan intends to use them to drop the hammer on Father Gabriel. Imagine his surprise, then, when Amorth tells the board of inquiry empanelled to reprimand him that he performed no exorcism! That boy in Italy wasn’t possessed at all, he says. No, he was just emotionally troubled and socially maladjusted, acting out in the only way that the climate of backward superstition in which he’d been raised would recognize. Amorth put on the performance that patient and villagers alike wanted to see, and now that normality has been restored, the local priest can help guide all concerned toward a less dysfunctional future for the lot of them. And if Sullivan and the other cardinals still don’t like it, then Amorth recommends they take their complaints to the pope. (Incidentally, in what has to be this movie’s most ludicrous casting gambit, Pope John Paul II is played by Franco Nero, of Enter the Ninja and The Visitor. I can only assume that nobody told director Julius Avery that old JP2 was Polish…)

     Meanwhile, in Spain, a widowed American architect by the name of Julia (Alex Essoe, from Doctor Sleep and The Drone) is on her way, together with her teenaged children, Amy (Laurel Marsden) and Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), to claim her inheritance from her deceased husband, the dilapidated abbey of San Sebastian. Julia plans to fix the place up and flip it to some fat cat with more money than sense, but the only way that plan becomes economically viable is if she herself is on hand to do all the designing, planning, and organizing. Amy hates the idea of living for months at a semi-ruined Medieval monastery, and makes her unhappiness known at every opportunity, in every way that adolescent ingenuity can contrive. Julia’s real worry, though, is for Henry, who survived the car crash that killed his father last year, and hasn’t spoken a word to anyone since. At least with Amy, Julia can be certain of the exact nature and degree of her disaffection, but there’s quite simply no way to tell what’s going on in that boy’s head anymore.

     Wouldn’t you know it, it’s Henry who takes it upon himself to investigate the strange thing uncovered in the cellar by the contractors doing the preliminary demolition work— a secret passageway, walled over and adorned with a mysterious sigil, from which explosive methane fumes seep constantly. Henry comes upon it while his mother is busy pleading with the foreman not to abandon the job (which the whole demo team is inclined to do, seeing as two of their number just about blew themselves up with that gas leak), but what enters the kid’s body is considerably weirder and even more dangerous than aerosolized hydrocarbons. From that day on, Henry, like the older boy in Italy, begins to act exactly like Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist. Julia, for her part, starts acting exactly like Chris MacNeil, taking Henry to one doctor after another for X-rays, CAT scans, and spinal taps, but never getting a satisfactory diagnosis of his condition from any of them. Eventually, Henry (who hasn’t so much regained his voice as acquired a new one belonging to Ralph Ineson, from The Witch and The Green Knight) demands to see “the priest.” Not knowing what else to do, his mother dutifully sends to the nearest village for Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto, of It Follows and Beneath). The possessed boy hurls Esquibel bodily from his bedroom, snarling “Wrong fucking priest!

     Soon thereafter, Gabriel Amorth arrives at San Sebastian, presenting a most incongruous appearance with his bouncer’s build, ecclesiastical vestments, and itty-bitty Vespa scooter. Julia can’t understand why her afflicted son would merit the attention of a papal emissary (she isn’t even Catholic!), but it doesn’t really matter what she thinks at this point, because the rest of the movie is exclusively about the battle of wits, wills, and supernatural power between Amorth and the demon occupying Henry’s increasingly frail and overworked body. Once the exorcist is convinced that his opponent really is what it claims to be, he puts great stock in discovering the entity’s true name, which will apparently give him magical leverage over it. Warned by Pope John Paul that this abbey has given the church trouble before, Amorth and Esquibel set about a painstaking investigation of the premises, ultimately discovering behind that anomaly in the basement a maze of catacombs sealed since the 15th century, where a previous exorcism backfired catastrophically. Nobody back then understood just how completely the demon had won, however— and Amorth has yet to grasp that Henry’s spiritual tenant is looking to repeat its carefully concealed victory for a new age.

     There really was a Father Gabriel Amorth (although he always used the Italian spelling of his name, Gabriele). The son of a Modena lawyer, a resistance fighter during World War II, a priest of the Society of Saint Paul since 1954, a prolific author, and an occasional dabbler in center-right Italian politics, Amorth would have had plenty of claims to fame even if he hadn’t spent 30 years, from 1986 nearly up until his death at the age of 91 in 2016, as an exorcist for the Diocese of Rome. By 2013, Amorth claimed to have performed 160,000 exorcisms, making him the Wilt Chamberlain of casting out devils. At least seven of his thirty-some books are devoted to the subject. I confess, however, that I’ve been unable to make myself read more than a few pages of the one that provides the source material for The Pope’s Exorcist. Amorth’s authorial voice is ranting and obstreperous, like the world’s most well-read and well-traveled Fox News Grandpa; even Glen Beck’s ghostwriter is a better prose stylist. I was disappointed to discover that, because I’d been very curious to see what Amityville Horror-level charlatanry would look like with this much institutional clout behind it. In any case, it’s noteworthy the lengths to which The Pope’s Exorcist goes to reframe Amorth as a charismatic badass who doesn’t play by the rules, rather than the deranged fanatic he actually was. Crowe plays him as sort of a 20th-century version of Father Sandor from Dracula, Prince of Darkness— earthy, humorous, impatient with authority, as doughty a foe of superstition and unreason as he is of demonic evil. It’s impossible to imagine Crowe’s Amorth ever saying (as the real one did) that Freemasonry invites supernatural curses or that yoga is as certain to lead one into the clutches of Satan as Harry Potter.

     Sanding down the real Gabriele Amorth’s rough edges (or more accurately, replacing them with new rough edges of a more appealing sort) wasn’t the only form of subliminal public relations spin that this movie’s several writers engaged in, either. The trouble with ripping off The Exorcist in 2023 is that the premise requires one to take the moral authority of the Roman Catholic priesthood seriously. It requires one to ignore not only ancient evils like two Inquisitions, nine or so Crusades, and the commissioning of the Maleus Maleficarum, but also a multitude of more recently roosted chickens like the Magdalene Laundries, four to six decades’ worth of nonstop kiddie-fiddling scandals, and a pope who served a stint in the Hitler Youth as a lad. To circumvent that problem, the writers resort to a truly remarkable ploy: they have Amorth discover, in the course of his research into the mysteries of San Sebastian, that Alonso de Hojeda, Tomás de Torquemada, and the other early ringleaders of the Spanish Inquisition became possessed by the demon locked up in the abbey’s basement as a result of that botched 15th-century exorcism! Then they tie one of the sources of guilt that the demon uses against Amorth into the ecclesiastical sex-abuse narrative! It turns out that some years ago, Amorth wrote off as merely crazy a supposedly possessed girl who claimed to be routinely raped by a devil; what he failed to recognize was that, when she said the devil in question looked just like him, she really meant that her rapist was the local parish priest. The battle to save Henry is thus transformed into both a bid to prevent a second Satanic infiltration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and an opportunity to atone for some small part of the church’s egregious mishandling of its sex-pest clergy. It’s clunky as hell, and it’s the ultimate possible dodge of moral responsibility, but I’m honestly sort of impressed that the makers of The Pope’s Exorcist were sufficiently self-aware to realize that they had to do something.

     When I say that The Pope’s Exorcist rips off The Exorcist in the Italian style, I am of course talking, in part, about the extent and shamelessness of its copying. The makers of any possession movie nowadays would no doubt feel compelled to give their demon-inhabited character a scary new voice overdubbed by a different actor, and a fucked-up face suggesting that no mortal body can contain for long the Infernal energies of a fallen angel, but this film goes the extra mile by having a spider walk, an anatomically impossible head rotation, and a message spelled out in miraculous wounds on Henry’s belly. It builds up to the exorcism by recapitulating Regan MacNeil’s ordeal of increasingly invasive diagnostic failures, albeit in a more squeamish manner than its primary model. It even reuses the trick of having a seemingly defeated exorcist lure the demon into exchanging the original victim’s body for his own, although this version of the gambit yields rather different results from William Peter Blatty’s. The Pope’s Exorcist recalls Italian Exorcist clones, too, in dialing up the sleaze via a subplot concerning the memories of sin that the demon dredges up to torment Father Esquibel. But what made the Great Italian Ripoff Machine such a delight in its heyday was that filmmakers like Alfonso Brescia and Enzo G. Castellari were rarely content to rip off one thing when they could rip off three or four instead. The Pope’s Exorcist revives that attitude like St. Francis Xavier laying hands on the corpse in Coulan. I’ve already mentioned the unexpected parallels between this movie’s prologue and that of Exorcist II: The Heretic, and attentive readers might have spotted certain points of resemblance to both The Amityville Horror and The Keep in the means whereby the demon gets loose to resume making trouble. I assure you, the latter are even more apparent in the film itself. Incredibly, there’s even a tiny bit of “Stranger Things” in here, insofar as the two kids’ too-hip-by-half taste in music creates an excuse for a succession of extremely obtrusive period-appropriate needle-drops— only the particular songs used here were chosen with all the wit and perspicacity of Zack Snyder slipping the Cranberries’ “Zombie” into Army of the Dead.

     The best cadge in The Pope’s Exorcist, though, is far and away the most improbable. Indeed, it’s so improbable that I never for a moment suspected that the filmmakers might attempt it, even though genre cinema as a whole has been obsessed with the same trick for over a decade. When all is said and done, and the abbey of San Sebastian is scrubbed clean of supernatural evil at last, Father Amorth’s one true ally on the board of inquiry from the prologue (Cornell John, from Rottweiler and Jack the Giant Slayer) leads him down into the Vatican basement to show him a spotless, ultra-modern laboratory where an army of clergymen pore over ancient texts and artifacts, looking for terrestrial traces of the 200 angels who followed Lucifer into rebellion at the dawn of time. And then the bishop invites Amorth, for all practical purposes, to become the top special agent of Vatican SHIELD. Oh— and I cannot over-stress this, although it’s only a little thing: Cornell John is a middle-aged black guy with a buzzcut. How the costume department resisted the temptation to give him an eyepatch, I’ll never know. You see the chutzpah of this, right? Gabriele Amorth was a real person. The Vatican is a real institution. For anyone to try building what amounts to a superhero franchise— or, be still my heart, an entire Vatican Cinematic Universe— on their backs requires a lack of give-a-fucks beyond anything I imagined Hollywood had in it today. A second Father Amorth movie has already been greenlit as I write this. I can hardly wait.



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