Let me say up front that The Pope's Exorcist is NOT a family film. It's rated R for violent content, language, sexual references and some nudity (not a lot of nudity, but a LOT of violent content).
Also, there's no such title as the "pope's exorcist," but also let me say that this film is in no way meant to convey the reality of exorcism or the everyday life of Diocese of Rome exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth, S.S.P.
But it is a powerful -- and quite entertaining -- statement on faith and prayer, especially in the face of incarnate evil.
What Is The Pope's Exorcist About?
Coming out today, April 14, from Screen Gems, part of the Sony Entertainment Motion Picture Group, the film, directed by Julius Avery, is a highly fictionalized version of the work of Father Amorth.
Born in Italy and a member of the Society of St. Paul (the male equivalent of the Daughters of St. Paul, the "media nuns"), he held his post in Rome from the mid-'80s (the time frame of the film) until his death at the age of 91 in 2016.
In the film, Amorth is in trouble with factions of the Vatican that don't take the devil seriously, but the unnamed pope (Franco Nero) has his back.
He's sent to a former abbey in Spain when the young son of an American widow who inherited the place is apparently possessed.
One look at the crumbling Gothic edifice should make any horror-film fan assume that the place has dark secrets, and that there's probably something buried underneath it.
They wouldn't be wrong.
With the help of a young Spanish priest (Daniel Zovatto), Amorth engages in a search for ancient secrets (complete with hidden compartments, bits of mysterious parchment and a map), followed by a superhero-style, CGI-powered battle with demonic forces.
How Real (and How Catholic) is it?
The film is (extremely) loosely based on a couple of Father Amorth's many books.
The Italian-born priest, who fought Nazis as an Italian partisan in WWII (the movie references that, and it is true), claims to have done 100,000 exorcisms.
Now, we're not talking about full-blown battles with the devil every single time. But, it's still an impressive stat, considering he also wrote many articles and about 30 books.
What sustained Father Amorth -- indeed, any exorcist -- was his faith, which is both his armor and his chief weapon in channeling the power of God.
Unlike Catholic Sacraments, where an imperfect, even doubting, priest can still perform a perfect baptism or wedding, an exorcist must have faith in Christ to withstand the snares of the devil.
He wields the power of that faith through prayer, the Scriptures and sacramentals, like holy water, crucifixes and so on.
Questions of faith -- in oneself, in Christ, in the Church -- permeate the film. And there's a reason for that.
As quoted in the production notes, producer Michael Patrick Kaczmarek said:
I believe I was able to succeed where other producers failed in that I was able to convince Father Amorth about my sincere religious devotion.
In our exchanges, I was able to convince him that if he took the chance to work with me, that I would try to make sure the Catholicity would be preserved in the film—and that he would be respected as a person along with the Church and his religious order.
So, How Is Russell Crowe as Father Amorth?
Crowe looks nothing like the small, elfin, clean-shaven Amorth. That being said, he was an inspired choice for the role.
Crowe has the rare ability to look physically formidable while still having a light twinkle in his eye. Reportedly, Father Amorth could be a bit of a wit, which irritated his demonic foes.
Crowe brings a solidity and gravity to the role, along with a sense of fun -- and of being haunted by the past. He also looks nifty in a cassock, and while riding Father Amorth's Vespa scooter.
In the production notes, Crowe said:
Without question, he is a man of deep faith, but also very definitely, his own man. He is determined to be open and upfront; he is not afraid of the failings of humanity. He accepts all of the foibles and quirks of people. That simple level of gut-based honesty helps him do his job.
Take Evil Seriously But Not Everything in The Pope's Exorcist
The Pope's Exorcist tries in some ways to emulate The Exorcist, the undisputed 1973 gold standard in the Catholic-exorcism genre.
But, in the style of modern, special-effects-laden films, it amps up the visuals and dials down the more thoughtful moments.
There are some over-the-top Catholic bits, like a random cassock-wearing priest waving a thurible full of smoking incense in the middle of some Vatican building (not a church), and apparent monks in black robes with pointy medieval hoods gliding around a cavernous library.
Also, the pope (Franco Nero) in The Pope's Exorcist does not (nor do I think he is meant to) resemble any current or recent pontiffs. For one, he has a beard. The Church's last actual bearded pope was Innocent XII (1691-1700).
The Real Priest in The Pope's Exorcist
Interestingly, there is an actual cleric among the executive producers. Jesuit Father Edward Siebert, S.J., represents one of the producing partners, Loyola Productions, a nonprofit production company located at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
In the production notes, he said:
Stories of good and evil are as old as time, but the story of Father Amorth and his unique role in fighting evil is an important story to tell. As a filmmaker and a Jesuit priest, I was in a unique position to acquire the rights to Father Amorth’s story and help shape the project.
And, if you want to see the real Father Amorth in action, just check out The Exorcist director William Friedkin's 2018 documentary about him, The Devil and Father Amorth, which I wrote about here.
Catholic publisher Sophia Institute Press (which put out three of Father Amorth's best-sellers) has also released a new book called The Pope's Exorcist: 101 Questions About. Fr. Gabriele Amorth.
Should Catholics See The Pope's Exorcist?
If you don't like films about exorcism or horror flicks in general, then probably not.
At the same time, though, the film is a strong statement for faith in the presence of doubt, for the power of repentance and forgiveness, and for the reality (and peril) of demonic forces, even in our skeptical age.
It also might encourage some viewers to learn more about Father Amorth and what exorcism really is and isn't.
And, if this one does well, I do smell sequel.
Also, Family Theater Productions partnered with Sony to distribute 100,000 Rosaries -- blessed by our own National Director, Father David Guffey, C.S.C. -- to be distributed to theatergoers.
Click here to watch him doing the blessing!
Image: Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) and Father Gabriele Amorth (Russell Crowe) in Screen Gems’ THE POPE’S EXORCIST. Photo: Jonathan Hession. © 2023 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Content Manager at Family Theater Productions.