Supernatural horror schlock exists for a reason; it’s usually easy to produce with a conservative budget and holds true to the escapism element of film. It often sheds all attempts at realism and leans heavy into its perposteirous premise and character decisions. We often forget that role of cinema; to whisk away to worlds and alternate realities that only slightly mirror our own with the goal of enjoying silly adventures that will never happen. And it doesn’t have to always happen in the stars of space or the future. “The Pope’s Exorcist” approaches its subject matter with these ideas in mind. It has no desire to be anything other than entertaining and ridiculous, embracing its shallow and derivative foundations with all the indulgence and conviction that makes these kinds of films so much fun to watch. “The Pope’s Exorcist” doesn’t break any new ground even in its own genre, but it so inexplicably entertaining I found myself unable to turn it off despite every critical instinct telling me I don’t need to see this through.
Directed by Julius Avery (“Overlord,” “Samaritan“) and written by Michael Petroni (“Queen of the Damned“) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (2017 “Beauty and the Beast“) the film is based on the written works of Gabriele Amorth, a real life Vatican exorcist who has been reported to have performed over 50,000 exorcisms over 30 plus years. “The Pope’s Exorcist” follows Russell Crowe as Amorth, a flask swigging, joke cracking, Vespa riding priest who serves as the Pope’s direct exorcist. After a new family inherits a mysterious mansion in the countryside of Spain, the youngest boy is seemingly possessed by a powerful demon who asks for father Gabriele by name. The Pope dispatches his best to investigate, and Amorth soon discovers a history of secrets and supernatural plans to take over the church from within.
“The Pope’s Exorcist” has very little to add to or say about the supernatural good vs evil genre. From the moment it begins, you can already telegraph where it’s going and how it’s going to end. It wears all of its tropes and cliches on the sleeves of Crowe and its Catholic Church conspiracies, so to give the film any credit for originality would be a disservice to any of the more elevated and better constructed attempts out there. But “The Pope’s Exorcist” has an undeniable conviction and identity of where it stands in the grand scheme of things in the genre that is hard not to enjoy. Sure, it’s silly and ridiculous and predictable, yet the committed and charming performance from Crowe and the surprisingly skillful craft of its filmmaking allow “The Pope’s Exorcist” to be better than you would expect despite its flaws.
The film doesn’t work without Crowe diving into the entire ridiculousness of it all. “The Pope’s Exorcist” relishes in Crowe’s new found attitude of “whatever, whatever, I do what I want!” roles, and frankly I’m all the way here for it. I mean, c’mon. Crowe riding a Vespa through Spain in full on priest garbs cracking dad jokes during exorcisms as he goes tit for tat with foul mouthed demons? Ya, go ahead and sign me up for 199 more of these. This is an actor who seems content with not only cashing in a few checks for minimal work, but also one who is over chasing legacy and awards, perfectly content with doing whatever comes across his desk. I can truly get behind that, because Crowe doesn’t allow his own magnetism and gravitas to be diminished even in a role that doesn’t deserve either. “The Pope’s Exorcist” knows what it is, what it wants to be, and who it has at the forefront of their product. This combination allows the film to be more fun than it should be despite having really nothing to offer.
And that’s the really strange thing about “The Pope’s Exorcist.” Critically, this film should be a bottom of the barrel Netflix find, something you watch when you’re over sifting through title after title and find yourself going, “Hold on, Russell Crowe as and exorcist? *clicks watch now.*” From a narrative standpoint, that’s about as much as the film has to offer, and it certainly isn’t breaking any new ground. But Avery seems smarter than his filmography would suggest, and creates a rather riveting and haunting atmosphere that far exceeds its basic framework. The taut pacing and solid visuals allow for “The Pope’s Exorcist” to constantly feel better than it is, and even when you’re ready to throw in the towel of disbelief, the third act ramps itself up with so much gusto and practical effects it becomes harder and harder to shut it all down. You feel compelled (see what I did there) to see it through to the end even if you already know where you’ll end up.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you “The Pope’s Exorcist” is a good movie. By all accounts, its probably isn’t and more than earns its middling reviews and ambivalence from audiences. But to my own surprise, it’s a really fun one, a film I went in knowing I would probably hate and left being won over by own’s ridiculous camp and predictable narrative. You could rightfully rip “The Pope’s Exorcist” to shreds, from its dull plot to its suspension of disbelief to its uneven commentary on the Catholic Church. But you could also sit back and just enjoy the Vespa ride and get as much out of it as it is willing to give. The more you’re willing to accept Crowe doing an absolutely terrible Italian accent with a cheeky smile (as if he knows it’s bad and wants you to join in on the joke with him) the more fun you’ll have watching it.
For me, “The Pope’s Exorcist” hit the right spot at the right time, and you can sign me up for as many of these as Russell Crowe is willing to make. It’s more fun than I ever thought it could be and more entertaining than it has any right to be for a film like this. But as you know by now, I’m always one to give credit to a film’s self awareness, and while I don’t necessarily believe that Avery has that in mind, Crowe sure as hell does. And he’s charming enough to be worth the price of admission.
I’m wiling to exorcise my overly critical demons and let “The Pope’s Exorcist” take me on a journey to hell as many times as they’re will to make the trip.
Bring on “The Pope’s Exorcist 2: Electric Boogaloo.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
“The Pope’s Exorcist” is currently playing in select theaters and is available on VOD. You can watch the trailer below.