I find it hilarious when a movie sets up what is supposed to be a startling reveal of an actor, when the response I imagine anybody would feel is “So what?” In the case of 2023’s The Pope’s Exorcist, we have a slow push-in on a priest in a hat. Hatted, this person looks a bit like Orson Welles after he went to seed. At the camera’s closest point, the hat is removed to reveal it is Russell Crowe. Even if you didn’t know he was the star of this feature, you have to admit that is underwhelming.
Crowe’s accent is…unique. For a while, I thought he was portraying the Dos Equis’s “Most Interesting Man in the World” guy. This accent seems to float around various areas of Europe much like how the movie changes locations with little motivation.
The film will eventually settle into Spain for the long haul, where a recently widowed American (Alex Essoe) and her children (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney and Laurel Marsden) have moved into the gothic mansion she inherited from her husband. That this centuries-old building used to be an abbey, and the fact it is in Spain, makes for one of the more interesting plot elements in the film.
Occasionally, I will make a smartass remark speculating the direction a movie could go in (however unlikely), only to be started when that twist actually occurs. Such is what happened in the second act here, and that is where the movie becomes above-average, however briefly.
Alas, that middle act is bookended by strictly boilerplate material. In the first act, we see a church commission put Crowe on trial for performing a mock exorcism in an attempt to cure a delusional man. But, per the title, Crowe can pull rank in the biggest way in that organization, as he answers to nobody but the Pope. And here I was hoping the title meant this would be about some guy who performs an exorcism on the Pope.
This, and many other early scenes, begins with characters talking in a language that requires subtitles, before inevitably transitioning to English. Sometimes, the transition is prompted by somebody saying something like “This investigation will be conducted in English” (though without any further explanation why). Other times, such as when Crowe is talking to the pope, the two of them will just start talking in English, though it does not appear to be the native tongue of either man.
Crowe travels from Vatican City to podunk Spain on a motor scooter. Yeah, right. I can’t begin to imagine the hemorrhoids that could only result from such a journey. In one shot, it appears the ends of his outrageously long scarf are in danger of getting caught in the rear wheel. If only his character had unexpectedly reenacted the death of Isadora Duncan. Now, that’s a movie I would add to my permanent collection.
Once he gets to his destination, he are treated to the type of possession stuff some law must be mandating be in every picture of this kind. Nothing of this type has been scary in the 50 years since the original Exorcist (including its own sequels), so I can’t figure out why anybody bothers. If something isn’t transgressive, you aren’t going to shock people.
Here’s a list of the of alleged scares you will find here:
- A child is possessed
- The child’s eyes will change impossibly
- The skin on the child’s chest will form scar tissue that forms words
- Their voice will become low and gravelly
- They will cough-up an improbable, and improbably large, object
- They will know everything about anybody around them—especially their darkest secrets
- They will use a lot of profanity
- Their jaw will drop impossibly low (unlike my jaw every time I see this effect used)
- They can defy physics by floating and walking up walls and around on ceilings
Consider the last time any of these things were scary. So why do movies of this type continue to do these things, as if following a checklist?
I was also annoyed by how this continued nostalgia for the 1980’s has distorted how the era really was. It is especially weird how so much music from any era that wasn’t popular in its own time is somehow retroactively omnipresent in movies set in that period. To be fair, this is probably also true of the 1960’s, a decade whose media I have an intense love for yet was over before I was born.
In this case of this picture, the boy who is about to be possessed is walking around the castle listening to the first Violent Femmes album on a Walkman. That album may be regarded as a classic now; however, back in 1987, nobody but the hippest college students was listening to that. I don’t know if this is fair, but I’m going to blame the show Stranger Thing for this phenomenon.
The Pope’s Exorcist isn’t a terrible movie, but it is yet another disposable film in the mold of The Exorcist. It does start to explore some interesting territory in its second half, only to have as its finale a long series of things we have already seen in at least a dozen similar pictures. If anything is haunted here, it is a movie which can’t escape the clichés established by previous films of this genre.
Dir: Julius Avery
Starring Russell Crowe, Alex Essoe, Peter DeSouza-Feighoney
Watched on Vudu