The world feels uneasy if we go too long without an exorcism film. It’s like making it through a Mass without a crying baby — its absence is almost louder than the screaming.
Thankfully this month, Russell Crowe relieved us of this. He stars in “The Pope’s Exorcist” as Father Gabriele Amorth (1925-2016), a real-life exorcist for the Diocese of Rome who performed thousands of exorcisms and produced several books on the topic.
But beyond the real name, there is little in the film’s plot that resonates with reality. The Holy Father personally sends Amorth on a top-secret mission to Spain, where it seems that while a family renovated an old Reconquista-era castle, a demon has escaped and latched on to the youngest child. From there it reaches into the usual grab-bag of demonic tricks, blaspheming God in an unnaturally sonorous baritone, swearing with all the technical knowhow of a child who has seen one R-rated movie, yanking at his restraints so he can scamper across the ceiling.
1. Why am I even telling you this?
Of course, you know what happens. There is no need to review this movie.
All exorcism films are the same; this isn’t even the first one about Amorth. William Friedkin, director of “The Exorcist,” filmed a documentary about Father Amorth several years back, and to return the favor this film steals liberally from Friedkin. The last fence post between fact and fiction has been knocked down and I’ve stopped bothering with the difference.
2. What is Russell Crowe’s accent in this?
Who would have thought that on a weekend where blonde Adonis Chris Pratt was voicing Mario, somehow Crowe would seize the championship belt for most atrocious Italian accent? It is a curious blend of Lady Gaga in “House of Gucci” and Father Guido Sarducci. It is regional but without a region, found in no village but the inside flap of a pizza box. It’s pure bologna, but luckily for Crowe sometimes that is spelled O-S-C-A-R.
3. Just how old was that cardinal?
While Father Gabriele is largely preoccupied with otherworldly foes, he also faces opposition from a cardinal named “Cardinal Sullivan,” who considers exorcisms a medieval relic.
But what’s most offensive is that the actor looks about 23 years old. I wouldn’t trust him to put on sunscreen at Coachella, let alone shepherd souls. It takes years of training, serving, and, often, learning the intricacies of the Italian barter system to become a cardinal. St. Pope John Paul II was a spry 47 when he received the red hat, but that’s the same age when most men give in and start reading books about Churchill.
4. Who is this pope?
The unnamed pope is played by the great Italian actor Franco Nero, who in his four scenes is sitting in the same spot for three and lying down for his last. In other words, he was paid to act, not to move.
The film is set during the pontificate of John Paul, yet this pontiff boasts a big bushy beard and an Italian accent. This establishes that the film exists in some sort of alternate history timeline, but remains stingy with the details. Is this a different pope in a world where the Italians maintained their monopoly on the papacy? Or simply a universe where John Paul decided not to shave? The ramifications of the latter are uncertain; I suspect the Berlin Wall still stands.
5. How much was Russell Crowe paid for this?
Not nearly enough. Too often actors fight the ravages of time. Tom Cruise hasn’t aged a day, to the point where we’re too scared to inquire after his methods. Most are terrified at putting on weight, knowing how America likes our actors ripped and our actresses tubercular. Ironically, the heavier you weigh the less gravity you seem to possess.
But Crowe has instead embraced the decline, and in doing so has tapped into the full Falstaffian swagger that always lurked beneath the muscles. Sure, the accent is ridiculous, but this is also a movie where the pope projectile vomits blood onto a boy genius cardinal. Crowe takes the material as seriously as it demands, which is to say hardly at all. He hasn’t had this much fun in years. The joy is infectious.
6. Why do exorcism films remain so popular?
“The Pope’s Exorcist” has already doubled its budget at the box office and looks like it has the legs to pass $100 million. It isn’t even the only demon film out right now. “Nefarious,” from the directors of the “God’s Not Dead” saga, has done decent business even with the competition.
It’s a paradox that in an age of falling Mass attendance and religious practice, these films prove more popular than ever. I’m as lost for answers as anyone. Perhaps in a hopeless world it’s easier to believe in hell than heaven? Or maybe we just like divine sanction for our Friday nights at the movies.
7. Will I see a sequel?
I had a fun time, despite or perhaps because of its flaws. This means the demons win, as I damn it with faint praise.
In the closing moments of the film, an ecclesiastical version of Nick Fury reveals that this vanquished demon is but one of 200 fallen to earth, and that they need Father Amorth’s help defeating the ones that remain. Cut to black. This is hubris; no, madness. It makes the Marvel cinematic universe look like a sandcastle in the shadow of the pyramids. Quality hardly even matters at this point; I will be there for all 199.