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‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ review: Salvation comes in the form of a priest riding a Vespa

Russell Crowe has a ball playing the wise-cracking Father Gabriele Amorth, but the film plays the “omg, they are possessed” hits.

Jonathan Hession

The Exorcist cover and poster with Father Merrin being engulfed by a beam of light as he’s going to the MacNeil household is one of the most iconic images in horror history. A precursor to the intense battle that he and Father Karras would go into driving a demon out of a young girl. The struggle between good and evil on a spiritual plane has been one of the longest-running themes in horror because the thought of something like that happening is rife for exploration.

Well, The Pope’s Exorcist understands the audience has seen all the tropes these films have to offer. That’s complete with foul-mouth-speaking entities in children, crosses, holy water, and contortionist walking possessed. The element that director Julius Avery uses to counteract malaise is Russell Crowe as Father Gabriele Amorth. Father Amorth is a little unorthodox – perhaps even a comedian. He’s the right-hand man of The Pope (Franco Nero), rides a Vespa, and antagonizes the demons he faces rather than take the conventional approach. Crowe has a ball with this premise – fake Italian accent and all.

It can’t be all banter – we must have an antagonist. Writers Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos try to inject at least a couple of them to give The Pope’s Exorcist a focal point. For one, there are issues with Amorth’s past, considering his service in World War 2 and a mentally-ill girl he didn’t help that he has to come to grips with. Due to an “unauthorized” exorcism, it’s drawn ire from the church tribunal – specifically, the rather ornery Cardinal Sullivan (Ryan O’Grady).

An American family of three also moves from America to Spain after the father dies. The mother and widow Julia (Alex Essoe) is trying to do the best she can for her rebellious daughter Amy (Laurel Marsden) and son Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), who has not spoken since a traumatic accident. So, they stay in an old Spanish monastery left to them. You probably know where this is going. An old, spooky abbey more than likely holds some spirits and haunts. Unfortunately, this family has to learn that tried and true test the hard way.

Now, that’s not to say The Pope’s Exorcist doesn’t have some things it could have dived into for differentiation. There’s the aspect of faith being tested to how macabre forces can use it against you. Another aspect ties the church and the Spanish Inquisition together with a backstory involving a malicious coverup. However, it all serves the purpose of just teasing (possibly) other films involving the adventures of Father Amorth and his sometimes helpful sidekick Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto). Crowe and Zovatto work off of each other well as a team – although the elder of the duo, Amorth is the less serious of the bunch. It catches Esquibel off guard, which brings out some genuinely funny moments.

Avery feels he’s trying not to stray too far into all the classic hits audiences have seen in previous exorcism films – especially given the certain lightheartedness the dialogue brings. Despite that, there’s a gravity that pulls The Pope’s Exorcist into homage territory regardless. Lights flicker on and off, furniture and people get thrown around, false visions, and a distorted voice suddenly emerges an eight-year-old child. It’s all here.

Avery takes the grandiose displays he used from 2018’s Overlord and puts some of that inside Pope’s Exorcist. At times, that tone gives these scenes a new coat of paint – but there is only so much you can do. Within this film is an assortment of flavors; some will stand out more on your palette than others. One has to wonder how many messages have to get cut in a body for Pope’s Exorcist to realize it already had new elements to spell things out with.

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