Movie Review: The Pope’s Exorcist

Alright, team, this one is… a lot.

The Pope’s Exorcist, directed by Julius Avery (of the much-better-movie Overlord fame), features Russel Crowe playing an adapted version of Gabriel Amourth, a Catholic priest who claimed to have performed hundreds of exorcisms over the course of his career as the titular Pope’s exorcist. And there’s so much going on here, I don’t even really know where to start

Actually, I do – let’s start with the actual central horror story, the possession of an American boy by an apparently violent spirit after his family moves to an abandoned Abbey in Spain to renovate it, leading to Amourth’s involvement to exorcise the demon. I think all really interesting possession stories are, in some way, detective narratives – it’s about getting to the bottom of the case, piecing together the evidence until you find the villain’s weakness and can actually take them down. The investigative elements are generally the part I find the most interesting, and I really enjoy what The Pope’s Exorcist does with this aspect – Crowe plays Amourth as a sort of renegade cop, cracking wise and taking an inexperienced rookie (Daniel Zovatto) under his wing as he approaches the case in a way nobody else could.

I was half-expecting someone to leap up from behind a desk and yell “You’re off the case, Amourth!” when he made yet another witty crack about theology or something. It’s not exactly doing anything new, but transposing the loose-canon-cop story beats into that of a Catholic exorcist is pretty entertaining, and Crowe does a good job imbuing Amourth with the warmth and charm he needs to work in this movie; he’s just Rebus wrapped up in priest’s robes, and that’s fine, in terms of entertainment.

(also, and apropros of nothing, there is a shot of Russel Crowe in Rome with the Coliseum in the background, and I have to respect this movie for the sheer balls of putting those pieces together in a single frame given…you know)

The effects are good, the scares are tight, and Avery shows off his excellent grasp of set-piece horror a few times over the course of the possession – the setting lends itself to some striking cinematography, and the performances are consistently very solid, especially from Crowe and Zovatto. Zoomed-in, and just looking at this film for what it presents in these two hours, it’s a perfectly good possession horror flick. But when you start to zoom out…

This is a movie about the Catholic church, there’s no avoiding that. Catholic horror has been pretty central to mainstream horror for the last decade or so, but usually, creators are smart enough to keep the actual church at the outskirts of their stories; take the Warrens, their religion is central to their strength, but they’re also not precisely within those power structures. The Pope’s Exorcist, though? He’s right up there. He’s in and about it, inescapably so, and the movie does not handle it well.

There are two major issues I have with the way this film depicts the church, and the first comes in a reveal about the Spanish Inquisition, which, within this story, was actually caused by a demon possessing an innocent member of the church to influence him to push for this decades-long atrocity. I have very mixed feelings about stories that directly take a specific historical event and attribute it to something other than the obvious human cruelty behind it, and this is a dreadful example of just why I tend to hate it. It serves the plot, sure, but I truly think it’s foul to try and shift the blame for something so destructive that was driven undeniably by the Catholic church on to some monsters they slapped up to explain it away, especially considering this movie claims to be based at least somewhat in reality.

But the part that really got me was the driving force behind Amourth’s trauma, the suicide of a girl who was being sexually abused by members of the Catholic church. Not only is this just yet another shitty example of a man’s tragic backstory being the suffering of a woman, but invoking the horrific sexual abuse committed by the Catholic church in this way feels downright fucking insulting. Amourth recognizes that this woman killed herself because of her sexual abuse by members of the priesthood, and then, according to the film, at least, he does nothing else about it – her story ends with how bad he feels about it, not what he did to change it or challenge the people who abused her. I’m meant to root for this guy, who was aware this was happening and being committed by members of the church he chose to be a part of, who then apparently just sort of shrugged and moved on with his life afterwards, who still chose to associate himself with this group without trying to change what had happened and what continued to happen within the church. But he feels bad about it, guys! Really bad about it! Touching on this aspect of the church at all is tricky in a story like this, but limiting it to a part of Amourth’s backstory is disastrously badly-pitched.

Ultimately, The Pope’s Exorcist left a bad taste in my mouth because of how it invokes some of the most appalling parts of the Catholic church’s history, either by trying to shift the blame or ignore the consequences.

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By Lou MacGregor

(header image via NC Review)

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