Maybe because I am your average seasoned moviegoer, “The Pope’s Exorcist” mildly amuses me without scaring me that much on the whole. As I probably said before, I have seen heaps of movies about demonic possessions since I watched “The Exorcist” (1973) for the first time in 1996, and there were some good ones while there were also bad ones. I must say that “The Pope’s Exorcist” does not belong to the former group, but it is a well-made flick which shows some competence and amusement at least.
The movie, which is set in 1987, closely follows the story formula of “The Exorcist”. During the opening scene, we are introduced to Father Gabriele Amorth (Russell Crowe), and we see how he executes his latest exorcism ritual on some Italian lad who seems to be possessed by some demon. Although it is possible that this young man is simply an extreme case of mental illness, Father Amorth skillfully handles the situation as a well-experienced expert, and it looks like everything ends up being pretty well except for that poor big black pig at the scene.
However, he is not regarded well in Vatican, though he has considerable reputation as the chief exorcist representing Vatican while trusted and protected by the Pope himself. As he admits in front of cardinals, most of his cases have been just serious cases of mental illness, and he simply opens the door for professional psychiatrists via his theatrical ritual, but he also believes in the existence of devils because of a few inexplicable cases which are strongly suggestive of that.
Anyway, the Pope, played by Franco Nero with some mild gusto, soon assigns Father Amorth to a serious case happening in some rural area of Spain, which looks more like Ireland under its gloomy weather because the movie was actually shot there in last year. An American widow and her two kids recently moved into an old abbey which happened to be the only asset left by her dead husband, and she hopes that the following renovation will earn some money for her family, but, of course, there quickly come several bad signs here and there as she and her family go through their first several days at the abbey. In the end, one of her kids end up looking quite disturbed to say the least, and it does not take much time for a young local priest to realize that they really need an expert who can handle this frightening incident.
Father Amorth comes to the rescue by his little motorcycle (Isn’t it better to go there by an airplane, considering how urgent the circumstance looks?), and he discerns right from the beginning that he is dealing with a genuine case of demonic possession (Is this a spoiler?). It seems that whatever is possessing that poor kid has some old score to settle with Father Amorth, and Father Amorth really needs to be careful about this powerful demon.
What follows next does not surprise you much if you already watched “The Exorcist” and its countless imitators. While that possessed kid hisses or threatens a lot, many disturbing things happen here and there around Father Amorth and several others around him, and it also turns out that the abbey has a very dark past right beneath its old ground. Things seem to get more interesting when the movie attempts to juxtapose a certain infamous part of the history of the Catholic Church with its supernatural main subject, but, alas, the movie only comes to make a superficial excuse on one of the greatest sins committed by the Catholic Church.
As some of you know, Father Amorth is a real-life figure, and the movie is actually based on his two books “An Exorcist Tells His Story” and “An Exorcist: More Stories”. Even if you have not read them yet (I have not either, by the way), you can clearly see how the movie goes all the way for more exaggeration, and that only makes it look only quite generic and clichéd. In case of that poor American family in the film, these supporting characters are not so developed well from the beginning, and that reminds me of how crucial the quiet but realistic first act of “The Exorcist” is in many aspects. That classic movie takes some time for establishing a realistic background and a bunch of credible characters living inside the background, and that is why what eventually happens along its story is still compelling and powerful even though it comes to lose some of its shock and awe during last 50 years.
Nonetheless, Russell Crowe is having some fun with his inherently showy role compared to many other main cast members of the film, who are mostly stuck in their colorless supporting roles in contrast. Although he seems to be away from the prime period of his acting career nowadays, Crowe has willingly become a colorful character actor during his later years like Laurence Olivier did, and his engaging presence is more than enough to compensate for his questionable delivery of Italian accent and dialogues. Come to think of it, how can we possibly expect any authenticity from a decidedly unrealistic exorcist flick?
In conclusion, “The Pope’s Exorcist”, which is directed by Julius Avery, is rather middling while not bringing any particularly new or fresh to its very familiar genre territory, but I was not bored when I watched it yesterday. It is not recommendable enough, but you will not probably be disappointed that much if you keep your expectation as low as possible.