Movie Review | The Pope's Exorcist (2023)


The Pope's Exorcist is a riveting tale of demon possession, directed by the talented Julius Avery (known for Overlord, 2018) and written by Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos (known for The Messiah, 2020 and The Unholy, 2021, respectively). The film takes inspiration from the books "An Exorcist Tells His Story" and "An Exorcist: More Stories,” both by the renowned Gabriele Amorth who lived and remained active as the Vatican’s Chief Exorcist until his death in 2016.

The plot revolves around the enigmatic Father Amorth, played enthusiastically by Russell Crowe. The story takes place in the heart of the Vatican where Amorth finds himself facing his most challenging case yet. Father Esquibel, portrayed by Daniel Zovatto (Don’t Breathe, 2016), joins him in the endeavor. One of the movie's more stout performances comes from Alexandra Essoe, who embodies “Julia,” a tormented soul in need of Father Amorth's assistance. Her daughter, “Amy” (Lauren Marsden - Survive, 2020), is a withdrawn teenager, and pretty typical in most respects. Essoe's portrayal of Julia exudes a certain middle-of-the-road-ness of outlook as a mother who, a year earlier, lost her husband. Uprooting to go back to Spain to claim her deceased husband’s land, events of the film take off here with everyone feeling out of place in their new/old home—pretty standard fare for a horror flick.

Since all possession movies just HAVE to involve houses that are dark, old, drab, drafty, and must be accompanied by teenagers who are estranged from one or both parents, we get the same here. The good news is that the film’s pacing doesn’t make us wait too long to see the good vs evil stuff.

The combination of R. Dean McCreary, Chester Hastings, and Jeff Katz's story crafting provides a solid foundation on which to take the usual liberties in exorcism movies where the priest is portrayed as realistic, cool, and rationally skeptical when the situation calls for it. And he has some attitude and always manages to throw in that worn-out phrase: “The Lord works in mysterious ways!” We get used to all of that here, too.

It takes until about the halfway point until the storyline gets us actually interested in the motivation of the demon. Until then, we get bombarded with a stilted tone from Crow who never really makes his character feel real. None of the performances here are very impressive on their own merits, but Peter DeSouza-Feighoney, as the young tormented “Henry,” is unforgettable as he speaks with a presence straight from Hell!

Franco Nero plays the Pope, lending an at least passable layer of authenticity to the film. Nero's portrayal adds credibility to the Vatican setting, immersing viewers in a world where faith and spirituality collide with the horrors of the demonic realm. But even this has to be accentuated with a “skeptic” in the bunch. Otherwise, it’s not really relatable. Unless you are devotedly Catholic, maybe none of it is.

The cinematography of the film is nothing short of exceptional, with stunning visuals that create an eerie and foreboding atmosphere (if overdone at times).

The Pope’s Exorcist is similar to the 2011 movie The Rite with Anthony Hopkins in that both are exercises in overly dramatic displays of demonic vs holy powers — complete with floating, naked women, bloody corpses with birds in their mouths, and rivers of magma and blood. Both The Rite and The Pope’s Exorcist had top star power, dramatic storylines, and a loose reliance on “true story” writing underneath it all. But both lost their audience appeal before the final act. The script always relies on base-level biblical scholarship and cinematic flare of what we’ve come to expect. Plus, the film ends with sort of an “upgraded” Vatican anti-possession league where we get an underground FBI covert counterterrorism operations vibe. This totally doesn’t fit.

The film never manages to match the mood and timing of lighthearted moments, but even if it had, there just isn’t anywhere for Johnny-come-lately exorcism films to go. Long-closed-off rooms have light coming into them and skulls in old wells used supposedly during the Spanish Inquisition seem as if they were cleaned for inspection only a few days prior. You have people crawling while possessed, disjointedly, with bones popped out of their sockets. It’s all theater—and quite tiring to view.