The Pope’s Exorcist **
Dir: Julius Avery. With: Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto, Alex Essoe, Franco Nero. 103 mins. Cert: 15
Hustled out over Easter without press screenings, Julius Avery’s papal potboiler derives brisk if well-trodden hokum from the writings of Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s demonslayer-in-chief between 1986 and 2016. The film’s Amorth is a wry old pro, finding the levity in a devilishly tricky day job; not unhelpfully, he’s played by Russell Crowe, alternating gruff Italian and Italianate English, and possibly eyeing the prospect of a late-career franchise-slash-retirement plan. Crowe is by far the film’s strongest suit, pre-empting (some of) our gigglier responses and mitigating against (some of) the material’s flimsiness. We still have movie stars, even if the pictures thrown up around them are getting smaller, staler and sillier.
Crowe’s Amorth is pulled away from Dan Brown-ish Vatican politicking to attend a gloomy San Sebastian abbey being renovated (in vain) by single parent Julia (Alex Essoe). Here, things are going bump in the night, chiefly Julia’s son Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), possessed by a pesky demon who scratches “GOD IS NOT HERE” on his host’s chest as if it were an “I’m with Stoopid”-like T-shirt slogan. Only Father Gabriele is a worthy enough opponent: propelling an earnest local cleric (Daniel Zovatto) across an adjoining corridor, Henry’s demon bellows “Wrong fucking priest!”, with the voice of Finchy from The Office, for extra chuckles. The subsequent growl-off is something like The Exorcist redone as a Tik-Tok video.
Despite the presence of Franco Nero, enlisted for a few days’ frowning as a non-specific Pope, there’s zero remaining trace of theological seriousness, even after the demon-baiting gets paused so genial Gabriele can unearth the abbey’s long-buried secret. Dim lighting only partially obscures the secondhand possession-movie imagery, but Avery at least keeps everything moving, which elevates this above those sluggish Conjuring films. Racing towards its splattery finale, it just about qualifies as lively schlock, and is likely your one chance to see Crowe in flowing robes piloting a Vespa to the strains of Faith No More; add a half-star if you’re attending in a state of advanced refreshment.
The Pope's Exorcist is now showing in cinemas nationwide.