Father Gabriele Amorth (1925-2016), the Italian Pauline priest who for many years served as the exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, performed tens of thousands of exorcisms and as a popular and prolific author warned our skeptical age of the reality of demonic possession.
However, the highly fictionalized biopic The Pope’s Exorcist, directed by Julius Avery and starring Russell Crowe in the titular role, is a wasted opportunity, a homeless man’s Exorcist that is possibly even more shamelessly ignorant about the Church than The Da Vinci Code.
Call me naïve, but when I heard last year that a major Hollywood picture starring Russell Crowe about Father Amorth was in the works, I thought this could be a rare case of an artistically sound, theologically informed drama rather than another paint-by-numbers, demonic possession horror flick. After all, we recently had Father Stu, in which Mark Wahlberg does a fine job portraying a real-life unlikely convert and eventual priest, while Abel Ferrara’s Padre Pio must have gotten something right since its star, Shia LaBeouf, became a Catholic during filming.
I wasn’t expecting a return to the Hays Code era, pro-Catholic blockbusters that were artistically great, including A Man for All Seasons, The Song of Bernadette, and Quo Vadis. But since many of those films were directed and starred non-Catholics, I knew that there is something attractive about the Catholic Church for Hollywood. I thought that perhaps The Pope’s Exorcist, along with Father Stu and Padre Pio, might be the start of a new trend. Besides, Russell Crowe is a noted actor and has been in Oscar-winning films.
Immediately after the trailer for The Pope’s Exorcist dropped, the International Association of Exorcists deplored it as “splatter cinema.” And most Catholic reviewers have been unfavorable to the film. However, having received a movie theater gift certificate for my birthday, I decided to see this trainwreck for myself.
The Pope’s Exorcist was even worse than I had expected.
As many reviewers have noted, there is no such function as “the pope’s exorcist” or “the Vatican’s exorcist,” which is the function ascribed to Father Amorth in the film. Father Amorth served as the exorcist for the Diocese of Rome; many dioceses have their own exorcists, but it just so happens that the bishop of Rome is the pope (in practice, however, many of administrative functions related to the running of the diocese are relegated to the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, an office currently exercised by Cardinal Angelo De Donatis).
Several other reviewers have also noted that although the film is set in 1987, when St. John Paul II was pope, the nameless pontiff bears no resemblance to Karol Wojtyła; in fact, his facial hair seems intended to emphasize that he is not Karol Wojtyła or any other pope in recent memory.
I don’t have a problem with fictitious popes in works of fiction. The somewhat prophetic 1963 novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, by Australian author Morris West, presents a fictitious Ukrainian pope (a decade and a half before a cardinal from behind the Iron Curtain was elected to the Throne of Peter) and deals with interesting topics related to the Cold War and communist persecutions of the Church. But when the titular character shares the name of a real priest, having a fictitious pope is annoyingly inconsistent.
But that’s not all. In the film, Father Amorth is summoned before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is led by the American Cardinal Sullivan. In 1987, the Holy Office was led by the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. I couldn’t find the age of the actor (a certain Ryan O’Grady) who plays Sullivan, but he looks about thirty. Not only was Ratzinger sixty years old, with snow white hair, in 1987, but no one in our age becomes a cardinal at thirty. (Last year, Giorgio Marengo, the Italian-born Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, became the youngest cardinal in decades, receiving the red hat at forty-seven.)
In the course of the film, Cardinal Sullivan criticizes Amorth for performing exorcism. Like many in the post-Vatican II Church, Sullivan considers belief in Satan to be superstition. Yet Cardinal Ratzinger was a defender of traditional Catholic doctrine. In The Ratzinger Report, his 1985 book-length interview with journalist Vittorio Messori, the future Pope Benedict XVI said the opposite of Cardinal Sullivan, remarking that Lucifer is “a puzzling but real, personal and not merely symbolic presence. He is a powerful reality, a baneful superhuman freedom directed against God’s freedom.”
Father Amorth is summoned to Spain, where an American mother of two moves into an abbey that had belonged to her late husband, in order to renovate and sell it. Her boy of about ten begins displaying all the signs of demonic possession in every horror film on the topic: evil-colored eyeballs, cat scratches all over his body, violent facial contortions, spewing blasphemies and talking like a middle-aged British gremlin.
Eventually, Father Amorth learns that the boy became possessed because the house was where the victims killed by the Spanish Inquisition (which he refers to as “the darkest chapter in Church history;” personally, I would nominate the massacres of thousands of Huguenots in France) are buried. Amorth eventually learns that the Spanish Inquisition was an example of the devil’s infiltration of the Church.
Church historians have noted that the modern myth of the Inquisition is contrary to the actual era (late 1400s to early 1800s), which was not nearly as bloody and ruthless as post-Enlightenment propaganda made it out to be. As the late Russian dissident and Gulag inmate Vladimir Bukovsky has noted, on a typical afternoon the Soviet NKVD would kill more people than the Spanish Inquisition did throughout the 350 years it functioned. One wonders if the film’s screenwriters created this undeveloped plot line (which is not explored in any detail) on a late night, anxiously aware that their deadline was approaching. Not to mention that Amorth finds the corpse of the Spanish Inquisition’s “Cardinal Protector;” when the Spanish Inquisition had no such function. (Maybe the writers got this from Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I, in which Tomas de Torquemada wears a cardinal’s red robes?)
Apart from its ignorance about the Church, The Pope’s Exorcist is simply a bad movie. I knew whenever a jump scene was coming; in fact, some of the film’s “scary” scenes were laughable; this was not only my sentiment; the couple seated in my row giggled throughout the screening.
Russell Crowe is fine as Father Amorth, and his Italian accent is convincing. But all the other characters are cookie cutter stock. The possessed boy’s mother and teenage sister spend most of the movie running around the abbey and screaming, like Shelley Duvall in The Shining but with much less character development. Father Amorth’s assistant is a young Spanish priest undergoing a period of doubt. Guess which apostle he shares a name with? And, like all Hollywood priests undergoing a crisis of faith, he violated his vows of celibacy with an attractive parishioner.
Then there is the African cardinal in the Vatican, Father Amorth’s main defender against Cardinal Sullivan. He speaks a generic Hollywood “African accent,” and his country of origin is unspecified, even though Africa consists of fifty-four nations. (Hollywood doesn’t have an analogous “generic European accent,” and European characters’ home countries are always specified.) This cardinal’s last name is… Lumumba, one of the few surnames in African history white audiences know. That’s about as original as naming a Jamaican character “Marley” or a Czech “Havel”.
Despite being a bad film artistically and theologically, there are a few positive aspects to The Pope’s Exorcist. The film’s ignorance about the Church seems to result more from lazy writing than malice. In fact, Father Amorth is presented as “the good guy” and is authentically cool, navigating Rome on his Vespa. Given the knee-jerk anti-Catholicism of Hollywood, this is refreshing.
Discussions about the devil frequently invoke Charles Baudelaire’s famous observation that Satan’s biggest accomplishment is convincing man that he does not exist. The Pope’s Exorcist deals with this theme, showing that not only a lack of belief in the devil but also many contemporary Catholics’ flabby faith can facilitate demonic possession. Father Amorth is appalled when Father Tomas, his Spanish assistant, tells him he hasn’t been to confession in eight months.
I was immediately reminded of the crisis of faith in contemporary Germany. After the case of Annelise Michel, the rite of exorcism is extremely rare in the German Church, as is the sacrament of penance: according to a study a few year ago, more than half of German priests confess once a year or less. Thus, is it surprising that many German bishops are trying to subvert the Church’s teaching and making the threat of schism realistic? This is definitely the work of Satan, who wants to divide and conquer Catholics through schism.
Also, while the Spanish Inquisition plot line was underdeveloped and lazy, the notion that Satan acts by infiltrating the Church through un-Christian behavior is theologically interesting. I thought of how the demonic and grave sins of some priests against the Sixth Commandment have led to a weakening of the faith around the world.
Still, most audiences probably went to see The Pope’s Exorcist for the yuks, adrenaline rushes, and jump scenes, all of which are disappointing. To be fair, the same can be said of William Friedkin’s far superior The Exorcist. While the ending of The Pope’s Exorcist suggests that this is the first installment in a franchise, the film will likely be soon forgotten. And that’s all for the best.
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I like Crowe, he’s a decent actor. But he also starred in the flop “Noah”, which was also highly fictionalized.
Reference also the Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is not as good as The Exorcist, but probably much better than this one, and more historically accurate.
The devil which this film is is an understatement. The Nefarious film is more authentic and sobering and more able to call one to introspection and a visit to the nearest confessional.
There is a scene in the Russell Crow film where Our Lady turns into a demon. It precedes with the view of her feet crushing the snake. In the history of saintly visions, the proof that they’re from the devil is when our Lady’s feet can’t be seen, since the devil would never show his ultimate fate!
“It would make Dan Brown proud.”
Pretty much all I need to see – thanks for saving me the time and money that would have been wasted.
Thank you –me too!
Addendum – ‘The Exorcist’ was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, and this was almost 50 years ago – nothing has come even close to it.
Mr. Mazurczak – well done.
I also like Crowe but figured this would be Hollywood trash. Too bad they missed an opportunity to really inform people about God’s saving power against the demonic in our society.
I saw this movie, and the bottom line for me is God wins. Evil is defeated. The priests are ready to go to work at the end. I liked it.
It would be interesting to know whether the more than half of German priests who confess once a year or less confess to similar priests, or to a priest who not only hears confessions but makes his own more regularly.
I concur with all of the above remarks. I would only add that this was a tremendous opportunity to have made a REAL biopic of Fr. Amorth, which would have been both edifying and entertaining, along with presenting a story at the heart of Catholic pastoral ministry. (I have made the same complaint about The Rite in 2011. A great and inspiring book followed by a distorted and stupid film version–and another lost opportunity.)
Mark Wahlberg was good as Fr. Stu, but can anyone out there name another actor who can portray a Priest? Not even Robert De Niro could do it. Jon Voight was good as PJP II, but is there any other?
I am not a Catholic but found this slapstick work oof fiction not worthy of the real Father.