Russell Crowe’s new film ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ tries to depict priests as superheroes Carlos Orsi The Skeptic

When I learned that Academy Award winner Russell Crowe was to play the late Italian Catholic priest Gabriele Amorth (1925-2016) in a horror film about exorcism, I felt a chill run down my spine. Amorth was a real exorcist who worked in Rome for three decades and was a popular public figure in the Italian media. He had already served as an indirect inspiration for Anthony Hopkins’ character in the 2011 film “The Rite,” which was “based on real facts” about exorcisms. The exorcist behind the facts used in the script of “The Rite” was not Amorth, but the personality of Hopkins’ character was based on him.

Declaring a work “based on” or “inspired by” real facts is a marketing strategy used to promote exorcism films since the original “The Exorcist” in 1971. It is a manoeuvre that, in addition to being dishonest (the “real fact” often boils down to a line of dialogue or an object that appears on the scene), ends up popularising the idea of demonic possession as a palpable and plausible phenomenon – with all the harmful mental health and political repercussions that accompany it – and weakening, in the minds of many people, the barrier between reality and fiction, which is already too tenuous in the modern world.

In life, Father Amorth was a real activist and agitator for exorcism, writing books that attacked theologians and bishops who preferred to see the devil as an abstract figure, a poetic metaphor for the evil of the human heart, rather than an actual supernatural entity, a fallen angel. He defended the notion that an unnecessary exorcism does not harm anyone, but denying exorcism to a real demon-possessed person would represent a crime of omission. Hence it follows that the best course of action would be to exorcise first and ask questions later.

The popularity of this line of thinking has led Italy to suffer from an epidemic of possessions, and if films only vaguely inspired by Gabriele Amorth could be a problem, what can we expect from a film where the protagonist is named after him? Anyway, it sends chills down my spine.

After watching the film, however, I am happy to report that my fears were unfounded: “The Pope’s Exorcist” is an adventure and fantasy film whose commitment to verisimilitude is comparable to that of the Harry Potter films and books (which, by the way, Gabriele Amorth condemned for the risk of “pushing children towards the occult”) or the adventures of Marvel heroes.

The main action of “The Pope’s Exorcist” takes place in a cursed abbey that resembles a vampire’s castle but is, spiritually, a demon-possessed counterpart to Hogwarts. The possessed boy is not named Harry, but he’s pretty close: Henry. The climax of the film drinks in equal portions from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and Hammer’s “Dracula”, the first colour film about the eponymous vampire, released in 1958.

Unlike exorcism films “based on real events,” which gradually introduce fantasy and supernatural elements to support this illusion, attempting to plant uncomfortable doubts in the viewer – “Could it be true? Could it happen to me?” – “The Pope’s Exorcist” diverges from the real world right at the beginning. The year is 1987, but the pope is not John Paul II; he is a generic pontiff played by the great Italian actor Franco Nero, with a beard. When was the last time the world had a bearded pope? Not in the last 100 years. The only points where the film adheres to historical reality are in the 1980s soundtrack and the fact that, in 1987, there was an exorcist priest named Gabriele Amorth in the Vatican.

The film seeks to launch a franchise where the Vatican works as a kind of SHIELD (the anti-terrorist super-organisation of Marvel films), and the exorcists, like Avengers in a cassock, are on a mission to “seek and destroy” evil forces that resemble TV series like Supernatural or Constantine. One of the companies behind “The Pope’s Exorcist” is Loyola Productions, linked to the Society of Jesus, the same religious order that gave the world the current pope, Francis, which perhaps helps to explain the attempt to turn priests into superheroes.

If “The Pope’s Exorcist” does not commit the sin of pushing onto the public the idea of demonic possession as a palpable and real event with which we should all be concerned, neither it achieves the grace of being a good film, even if in the key of fantasy.

Unfortunately, there is not a single original atom there, either in the story, in the development of the characters, in the “revelations” that punctuate the plot, or in the way in which the product of all this recycling materialises on the screen. Echoes of all the exorcism films made in the last 50 years are there – including the inevitable teenager who crawls along the walls like a spider – and the “conspiracy” that unfolds near the end, a kind of Da Vinci Code in reverse, does not impress.

Crowe, Nero, and the rest of the cast are fine in their roles, and there’s a female nude scene that’s quite surprising, given that the film was financed by a Catholic religious order. And that’s all.

A few years ago, William Friedkin, director of “The Exorcist,” directed and presented a documentary about the real Gabriele Amorth, “The Devil and Father Amorth.” There we see the flesh-and-blood Amorth in action, at 91 years old, confronting a real “demoniac” called Cristina. The exorcism scenes are alternately shocking – it’s obvious Cristina has a problem – and tedious, with prayer circles and responsories that anyone (like me) growing up in an Italian Catholic family has watched (and yawned at) several times. At times, smells from childhood came to mind, but not my favourites.

Friedkin also interviews experts in neurology and mental health. The editing of the film allows those who repeat clichés such as “we don’t rule out anything,” “science doesn’t explain everything,” or “there are things we still don’t understand” to speak freely. It reserves only a few precious seconds for those who claim that patients with the same symptoms as Cristina react very well to psychotherapy and medication, and that possession is a contextual disorder. If religion takes away the symptoms, it’s because religion probably put them there in the first place: the person is possessed because their culture predicts the occurrence of possessions. However, these are snippets of the documentary that you might miss if you blink at the wrong time, and Friedkin’s narration is quick to bury any unwanted conclusions.

Upon reviewing the documentary, it becomes clear why the film starring “Father Gabriele Amorth” is a complete fantasy, and not a true story of the real Father Gabriele Amorth. Reality is too unspectacular and too inconvenient.

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Funded by a Catholic religious order, ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’, starring Russell Crowe, feels like a mix of Harry Potter and Dracula
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