AN EERIE silhouette of someone in a trilby walking down a street, and we know which 1973 smash-hit movie The Pope’s Exorcist (Cert. 15) is channelling: William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. This continues to spawn hordes of profitable demonic-possession spin-offs. Without doubt, the devil is in the retail business.
This new film, released in cinemas, stars Russell Crowe as the real-life Italian priest, Gabriele Amorth. It is 1987, shortly after he was appointed an exorcist in the diocese of Rome. An overweight Crowe bestrides a tiny scooter, thus establishing the maverick self-mocking humour of his character. Amorth tells people that the devil doesn’t like jokes. He has arrived in the countryside to see a boy diabolically possessed, the sign being his suddenly acquired fluency in English!
The film is based on Amorth’s books about his exorcisms; so perhaps this is a genuine retelling. There is, however, a disclaimer asserting the whole film is a work of fiction. Even so, the picture comes armed with an imprimatur from one of the executive producers, the Rector of the Jesuit research university Loyola Marymount.
The Pope’s Exorcist plays like The Da Vinci Code-meets-Rosemary’s Baby as we are left to puzzle out the true identity of the devil. In the course of thousands of cases of deliverance handled by Amorth, he attributes most to psychological causes. There are, nevertheless, enough instances of satanic power to justify this as a horror movie, with all the thrills and spills of that genre enhanced by its supernatural underpinning.
Central to Julius Avery’s film is a ruined Spanish abbey with all the cinematic trappings of a haunted house. Bathed in lurid shades of green, Fr Amorth and Fr Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto), the local priest, discover a corpse in a cage. It transpires that these are the remains of a friar of the late 15th century whose possession apparently sparked off the Inquisition. As a premise, this lets the official Roman Catholic Church off the hook, because the tortures, interrogations, punishments, and executions were all the devil’s fault. But, if this was so, why for all these years have ecclesiastical authorities conspired to cover it up?
It is about at this point that there is a battle for Amorth’s soul. Will Satan win, and was the priest always in his grasp? And what is the role of Pope John Paul II (a bearded Franco Nero) in all this? Not being that profound a film, it is not the place to go for a serious discussion about the ministry of deliverance. We are left to conclude for ourselves the nature, the mystery, of evil — why it occurs, what the remedy is, and, crucially, where merciful redemption lies.
Crowe, with his Italian accent and rough-diamond geniality, heroically attempts to make the part believable. He isn’t helped by uttering ad nauseam the same lines about our sinfulness. This isn’t a biopic. We don’t, for instance, get glimpses of the real Amorth’s implied misogyny: women more likely to be the devil’s agents than men. The Pope’s Exorcist equates to riding the ghost train. This is entertaining enough if you are partial to horror, violence, bloody images, strong language, sex references, and menace.