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In his original 1973 review of "The Exorcist," Roger Ebert wrote about how right it was to cast the role of the older priest battling evil with the great character actor Max von Sydow: "He has been through so many religious and metaphysical crises in Ingmar Bergman’s films that he almost seems to belong on a theological battlefield the way John Wayne belonged on a horse."
"The Pope's Exorcist" combines those two images by casting Russell Crowe in the lead role of Father Gabriele Amorth, a theologian, journalist, book author, and the pope's designated exorcist. Amorth is a sly, tough, wisecracking priest who approaches each new mission like a gunslinger. Instead of pistols, rifles, and hunting knives, he has an exorcism kit with crucifixes and holy water that he carries around in a case the size of a saddlebag. His horse is a red-and-white scooter that's too-small for Crowe's let-it-all-hang-out character-actor body but makes a perfect, wonderful sight gag for that reason. Amorth even has a tiny whiskey flask that he insists that he carries to ease his scratchy throat. He's written and performed like one of those wry, hard-bitten bad-asses that used to be played in 1960s Westerns by aging but still-popular action stars like Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and (yes) John Wayne. Their characters pointed out the hypocrisies of so-called civilization but defended it anyway. They'd seen it all, but could still be shocked.
Directed by Julius Avery ("Overlord")—and very, very, very loosely inspired by a real priest whose story was told in a documentary by "Exorcist" director William Friedkin—the film follows Amorth to a decrepit abbey in rural Spain to drive a demon from the body of a young boy. It has been marketed as a horror film, but it's more busy and impatient than creepy and scary, especially when it's cross-cutting between parallel lines of action happening in the abbey and back at the Vatican (where Franco Nero plays the pope, who knows there's more going on than a garden-variety possession). It's ultimately a theological action flick with overtones of an old-fashioned Western about an aging gunslinger who teams up with an earnest but untested younger partner (Daniel Zovatto's Father Esquibel) to save women and children from a monstrous enemy.
Alex Essoe costars as Julia, a widowed mother of two whose husband died in a car accident two years earlier, leaving her the aforementioned abbey, which she hopes to refurbish to sell and pay off family debts. Julia has a teenaged daughter named Amy (Laurel Marsden) who is rebellious in a way that would've been called "loose" at one time, and a 12-year-old son named Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) who ends up a host for supernatural evil, which manifests itself in pretty much the same way it has since Friedkin adapted William Peter Blatty's source novel: profanity, blasphemy, open sores, vomit, biting, levitation, bodies twisting in anatomically impossible ways. etc.
The opening sequence is the most original thing in the film: Amorth handles what amounts to an appetizer exorcism by trash-talking evil, inflaming its arrogance to trick it into defeating itself. The scene is just engaging enough to get our hopes up that we've been introduced to a rare original character with endless franchise potential: think James Bond in a turned-around collar, or a theological cousin of Detective Columbo, whose odd mannerisms and disheveled appearance make suspects underestimate him. There's even a postscript that makes it seem as if Amorth is joining an exorcist version of the Avengers Initiative. The producers blew an easy opportunity for applause by not ending the film with a printed title card promising "FATHER AMORTH WILL RETURN."
Unfortunately, “The Pope’s Exorcist” is a watchable but far-from-special rehash of exorcism movie cliches, with detours into a Vatican conspiracy plot that has been compared to Dan Brown's novels but half-assedly connects with church atrocities and scandals. The punchline is so convoluted and ridiculous that it seems to let the Church off the hook for the Inquisition and the pedophilia cover-up by saying, in essence, "The devil made them do it."
Crowe makes the movie worth seeing. He plays Amorth as a prideful cut-up, greeting vile taunts with a deadpan smirk and snappy answers. When the demon growls that he's Amorth's worst nightmare, Amorth replies, "My worst nightmare is France winning the World Cup." Crowe plays the character's dry, needling wit just right. He's even more appealing when he lets the audience see insecurities that the priest keeps hidden. When Father Esquibel tells Amorth that he's read his articles about possession in magazines, Amorth mentions that he writes books, too, then softly adds, "The books are good." When Avery cuts to traveling shots of Amorth puttering on highways and country roads on his scooter, the frock, collar, fedora, and sunglasses make the character iconic: coolly ridiculous, ridiculously cool.
One can imagine rewatching bits and pieces of the movie just to savor Crowe's performance and his co-stars' awed responses to it. Crowe has been so good for so long that he glides through this role as if he has nothing to prove (even though the character does). He goofs around and adds surprising little gestures and reactions to enliven a scene. But he never goes so far that he seems to be making fun of the movie. When Amorth discloses his own spiritual torment in a series of flashbacks, Crowe plays it straight, suffering and writhing as if he's imagining that he's in an Ingmar Bergman movie. He seems to be at roughly the same career point that Paul Newman arrived at in the early 1970s when his hair went silver and he lost most of his vanity. He's not suffering for his art anymore. Even when a scene is serious, he's having fun.
Now playing in theaters.
Russell Crowe as Father Gabriele Amorth
Daniel Zovatto as Father Esquibel
Alex Essoe as Julia
Franco Nero as The Pope
Laurel Marsden as Amy
Cornell John as Bishop Lumumba
Ralph Ineson as Demon (voice)