Published on April 16th, 2023 | by Damien Straker

The Pope’s Exorcist – Film Review

Reviewed by Damien Straker on the 16th of April 2023
Sony presents a film by
Julius Avery
Screenplay by Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos based on ‘An Exorcist Tells His Story and An Exorcist: More Stories’ by Gabriele Amorth
Produced by Doug Belgrad, Michael Patrick Kaczmarek, and Jeff Katz
Starring Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto, Alex Essoe, and Franco Nero
Cinematography Khalid Mohtaseb
Edited by Matt Evans
Music by Jed Kurzel
Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: the 6th of April 2023

Russell Crowe’s likeable performance is the only commendable aspect of this forgettable horror rehash. Whether his character is joking in Italian, riding his Vespa scooter around Spain, or casually dumping an ancient skull onto someone’s lap, the gruff actor adds touches of humour to an otherwise generic biblical thriller. The tone of his performance is unexpected since the actor usually plays intense and brooding hardmen. Outside of casting a good leading man, Australian director Julius Avery struggles to transcend the dull, second-rate horror material.

The filmmaker started his career crafting an unremarkable Australian heist thriller called Son of a Gun (2014), which starred Ewan McGregor and Brendan Thwaites. A shift to Hollywood saw him land a huge directing gig by helming the WWII action-horror movie Overlord (2018). It was even produced by J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot Productions. Avery’s impact on Hollywood is apparent. However, outside of banking an easy pay cheque it is hard to see how this knock-off of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) will enhance his reputation as a quality filmmaker.


The film is supposedly based on the life of an Italian priest named Father Gabriel Amorth. Amorth claimed to have performed over 160,000 exorcisms, which might be as big a whopper as Pope’s lumbering screenplay. His story begins in the 1980s, where he is summoned to a village to help a young fellow who has been possessed. Amorth (Crowe) uses his skills to transport the demon from the man’s body and into an animal that is then shot. Meanwhile, an American family is living in Spain. A mother, Julia (Alex Essoe), her teenage daughter, Amy (Laurel Marsden), and son, Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), are renovating a property left to them after Julia’s husband died. Yet strange occurrences place the family’s workmen at risk. The family is then stunned when Henry is possessed by a demon (voiced by Ralph Ineson).

Unable to find appropriate medical treatment, the family seeks an alternate solution. They contact the Vatican (as one does), which leads the Pope (Franco Nero) to dispatch his best agent. It is a good chance for Amorth to prove himself to the hierarchy, which disapproves of his methods. With a young local priest by his side, Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto), Amorth is confident of extracting the demon. However, in their first confrontation, the beast reveals the history of both men, which stifles their battle plan and faith.

As mentioned, it is surprising seeing Russell Crowe having fun in the title role. It is also the film’s only inspired turn. Not only does Crowe relish the silly material but the freedom from Avery to add touches of comic relief to an otherwise po-faced special effects demo that grows louder and dumber. Evidently, Amorth’s demon hunting skills have not dulled his sense of humour. When the family desperately asks him what they should do, he announces with deft comic timing, ‘coffee!’ He assures them it will help him through the long night. Similarly, the way he torments some of his fellow priests with hand gestures and saying ‘cuckoo!’ is a bit of fun. Consequently, Amorth’s wellbeing is a far greater tension point than Henry himself. During the exorcism scenes, the demon senses weakness and unearths Amorth’s painful backstory.

The demon induces flashbacks to WWII when Amorth was a soldier and failed to save a woman who asked for help. The beast also tries coaxing Father Esquibel into attacking him. He manifests visions of a woman with whom Esquibel was romantically involved. It is fortunate the screenplay, credited to a handful of writers, affords the priests their own backstories because everyone else is dispensable. Julia and Amy are written without interesting character traits or agency. It is little wonder the film degenerates into a generic male buddy movie that happens to involve priests.

A major shortcoming of Avery’s treatment is reinforcing how much he adores The Exorcist. There will always be similarities between the films because of the subject matter. It is not the depiction of exorcism or the conversations about good and evil that jar. It is the lack of unique moments and scary, eye-widening visuals to distract from the film’s derivative form. The tired haunted house narrative lacks invention and the way the two plotlines, the family’s move and Amorth’s assistance, collide is limp and predictable. Meanwhile, confronting the demon, the challenge to faith, and the violent collisions of the exorcism are too much like Friedkin’s film. Having a character possessed and scaling the walls like a spider makes us long for Avery’s own imprint or a flash of colour to offset the dull palette.

Just as the nostalgia well looks depleted, he draws from an admittedly unlikely source: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The priests explore an underground area beneath the house containing skulls and secrets related to the demon. The change of location is a welcome departure from the languid exposition. However, it does not dispel Pope’s critical failure. The film is not very scary. There are some relatively creepy images, such as scars forming messages across Henry’s stomach and a dead bird escaping from his mouth, but nothing builds sustained tension beyond one or two brief jolts. The dull effects-laden climax sees female demons blown to smithereens with magic crucifixes as though video games themselves were as big a reference point as The Exorcist and Raiders.

The only time The Pope’s Exorcist is interesting is when it showcases Crowe’s comic performance. He seems to understand the ridiculousness of the material by giving his character personality and by making Amorth conflicted. His character and backstory deserve a better psychological film. When he is off-screen and the family is at the forefront, the movie flatlines. It does not help that the storytelling, especially early on, lifts from much better films and the special effects are unremarkable. The director will need to choose sharper material moving forward to assert himself as a clever stylist when undertaking this type of genre filmmaking.

The Pope’s Exorcist – Film Review Damien Straker

Summary: Russell Crowe’s likeable performance is the only commendable aspect of this forgettable horror rehash.



About the Author'

is a freelance writer and film critic. He studied at the University of Sydney and graduated with an Arts Honours degree in Film Studies. He is a pop culture aficionado and enjoys talking about all films, 90s TV shows, ninjas and watching Rugby League. His favourite film directors are Alfonso Cuarón, Clint Eastwood and Alexander Payne.

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