The Pope’s Exorcist (Julius Avery, 2023) was released in April to much fanfare and has just recently landed on Netflix. While it performed well enough at the box office, it failed to wow the critics. It certainly didn’t rise to the level of The Exorcist (1973). In fact, the many possession/exorcism movies that have appeared since William Friedkin’s masterpiece have generally fallen short. One of the reasons seems to be the failure to really understand the religion portrayed. Let’s use The Pope’s Exorcist as a test case.
Basically, the story revolves around a scenario involving the historical exorcist Fr. Gabriele Amorth (played by Russell Crowe). The possession case, unlike in The Exorcist, does not claim to be based on a true story, beyond the fact that Amorth was a real person. The particular case is located in Castille, Spain, where a widow named Julia (Alex Essoe)—along with her two children, Amy (Laurel Marsden) and Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney)—has inherited an abbey. It’s never really explained how an American came to own an abbey in Spain. In any case, Julia is having the abbey renovated so that she can sell it and move her family back to America. Some workmen inadvertently release a demon, however, and Henry becomes possessed.
Meanwhile, at the Vatican, Fr. Amorth is in trouble for the exorcism he performed before the opening credits. While he awaits the tribunal, a priest casually strolls by swinging a thurible (an incense censer). This detail immediately alerts the viewer to the fact that perhaps Catholicism isn’t terribly familiar to the writers or director. Incense is used during some high masses, but what is its purpose here? To convince viewers that the Vatican is Catholic? What’s more, such non-essential use of items generally reserved for sacred purposes cheapens their effectiveness when push comes to shove. As in an exorcism.
The story is set in 1987. When “the Pope” (Franco Nero) is introduced, he’s clearly not John Paul II, who held the office from 1978 to 2005. There can be reasons for fictionalizing popes, of course, but announcing Fr. Amorth as “Chief Exorcist of the Vatican” from the start might suggest a bit of historical verisimilitude could be expected. Particularly troubling is that “the Pope” is bearded, as is Fr. Amorth. No pope has sported a beard since 1700, and while there is no explicit rule regarding facial hair, most Roman Catholic priests in the western world aren’t bearded. Historically, Fr. Amorth did not wear a beard. He was also not known for riding a scooter or wearing red socks. The latter detail hints at pretensions of becoming a cardinal, as does the symbolic use of a cardinal throughout the movie. Was this intentional on the part of the filmmakers? It seems unlikely.
Getting back to the story, Amorth is personally sent by the Pope to take care of this particular exorcism. He rides his scooter from Rome to Spain and soon becomes convinced that this demon is real. Perhaps in a nod to The Exorcist, he recruits a younger priest, Fr. Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) to assist with the exorcism. Fr. Amorth discovers that the abbey holds a conspiratorial secret from the Spanish Inquisition, but this isn’t given with detail as much as it is shrouded with quasi-historical mumbo-jumbo. In the catacombs under the abbey, Amorth discovers that the Inquisition was literally the work of the Devil and that the Vatican knew this and covered it up. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone in 1987 would have defended the abuses of the Inquisition, but implicating the Vatican in a cover-up hardly seems likely for the Amorth revealed in his books, An Exorcist Tells his Story and An Exorcist: More Stories.
During the exorcism, the exorcist, as often happens in movies, becomes possessed. The possession of Fr. Amorth reflects more that of Fr. Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins) from The Rite (Mikael Håfström, 2011) than what was done so effectively in The Exorcist. Borrowing concepts from The Nun (Corin Hardy, 2018), the demon Asmodeus is ultimately swirled down to Hell in a supernatural sinkhole at the end.
Although The Exorcist—which turns fifty this year—is sometimes considered laughable, it remains the holy grail of exorcism movies. The reason, it seems, is that it knew its Catholicism inside and out. William Peter Blatty, who wrote the novel, was not only raised Catholic, but he remained Catholic. William Friedkin, while not Catholic, took seriously what Blatty knew. More recent attempts at this sub-genre definitely suffer by not paying attention to the details of Catholicism. The Pope’s Exorcist is one such attempt.
Returning to the cardinal theme, it’s important to consider just how hierarchical Roman Catholicism is and its importance for such films. Everyone knows that cardinals (the ecclesiastical kind) wear red. They are the select pool of prelates from which the pope is elected. The cardinal (of the avian variety) appears at key points throughout the film. It represents Amorth’s guilt at having pretended to be dead to avoid German soldiers in World War II. When Henry, Julia’s son, is possessed, he vomits up a dead cardinal. Earlier, when Amorth didn’t believe a girl was possessed, she killed herself after eating a live cardinal. While possessed, Amorth runs through a room of swirling cardinals (birds). Indeed, red stands out in the color palette of the film, dominating the end credits. Is there supposed to be a message in this? Cardinals—the bird kind—do not live in Europe. In fact, the bird took its name from the clergy, not the other way around. The choice of the cardinal in the movie is a significant one, so why does it feel like an accident?
Perhaps there’s an unexpected connection here, however. Catholic cardinals wear red to symbolize the blood of Christ. The blood in the movie (the Pope projectile vomits blood in one scene) is much more secular. In the climax, Fr. Esquibel is covered in blood from a girl with whom he had sex earlier who emerges naked from an iron maiden. The red here is hardly sacred blood. The Nun also misuses sacred blood, so this isn’t an isolated problem. (Having Fr. Esquibel turn out to have been a former sexual predator also feels puerile in this context.)
The Pope’s Exorcist falls down in large part, then, because of its poorly presented Catholicism. Resources for understanding Catholicism are abundant, but horror that applies religious tropes without a basic understanding of them runs the very real risk of failing to convince viewers, even if they aren’t religious. Half-a-century ago The Exorcist showed how it should be done, and it seems not to have aged a day since.
Steve A. Wiggins is an independent scholar who has taught at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Carroll College, and Rutgers and Montclair State Universities. He is the author of a book about possession movies, Nightmares with the Bible (Lexington, 2020) and the recently published Devil’s Advocates series book at Liverpool University Press on The Wicker Man. Check out his website. Steve has also written for Horror Homeroom on “What To Do When the Exorcist is Absent,” “The Golem as the Perfect Monster,” sex and death in The Lighthouse and The Witch, and “Reclaiming Jewish Monsters in The Offering.”