In most cases, the familiar big-screen sight of men in clerical collars battling demons — or in this instance, the Antichrist himself — swerves at least into broad caricature. At worst, the outworn trope degenerates into sacrilegious and grotesque parodies of Catholic religious practice.
“The Vatican Tapes” avoids most of this and is somewhat reverent, with both a relatively straightforward ritual and a taciturn priest, Father Lozano (Michael Pena). He’s a tough guy, a tattooed former military chaplain who maintains his dignity throughout — although he has little to say, either on his own behalf or that of the faith.
Appropriate histrionics come from the writhing object of his ministrations, Angela (Olivia Taylor Dudley). They’re reinforced by sepulchral Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson). Having been possessed himself when he was 12, His Eminence, it seems, is taking Angela’s case personally.
With, perhaps, little funds for gore, director Mark Neveldine focuses instead on the Satan-subduing rite — always a popular spectacle with moviegoers — that takes up his film’s final 15 minutes.
The “tapes” of the title refer to screenwriters Christopher Borrelli and Michael C. Martin’s conceit that, since the advent of motion pictures, circa 1900, the Vatican has maintained a secret visual archive — along with more traditional print files — on the subject of exorcism.
This establishment, which looks like a mildewed Costco with stone walls, is chockablock with scraps of film and videotape as well as box after box of written material chronicling the church’s unending fight with Satan.
As though to invoke an imprimatur by association, the picture opens with a montage that includes archival news footage of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, with images of the current pontiff thrown in for good measure.
Movies with tight monetary constraints often have to resort to this sort of thing to achieve that “ripped from the headlines” feel. Here, the filmmakers are merely digging for gothic gravitas.
The film contains some mildly gory violence, occult themes, a sloppy portrayal of Catholicism and fleeting uses of profanity and of rough language. (L, PG-13).