Saturday, April 15, 2023


It’s Russell Crowe who makes The Pope’s Exorcist reasonably compelling. He grounds the movie’s well-crafted tropes and cliches in the exact right combination of pathos and panache for this flimsy pulp fun. He’s made the movie star pivot from headlining heavyweight to ace character actor better than just about anybody his generation. He’s been just as good this past decade playing mythological fathers (Man of Steel) and rumpled detectives (The Nice Guys) and road rage villains (Unhinged) as he was anchoring historical epics (Gladiator), biopics (A Beautiful Mind), and true story thrillers (The Insider) during his initial stardom. When he rides into this movie, perching his stocky frame in full billowing Catholic priest regalia on a little Vespa, and rumbling into each scene like he's a combination of Wallace Beery and Donald Pleasence, you just know you’ll be in good hands. He’s playing, as the title suggests, the Vatican’s top exorcist who reports directly to the Pope. If you hope he’ll at some point say “Take it up with my boss,” you’ll be rewarded pretty quickly. The movie falls into the standard pattern of stories in this sub-genre. It introduces a sympathetic family with a harried widow (Alex Essoe), her surly teenage daughter (Laurel Marsden), and innocent little boy (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) who’s about to be possessed by a demon. Soon enough it all goes wrong for them. The church gets called to help, so the Pope (Franco Nero) sends Crowe to work stalking around a haunted abbey that’s literally hiding devilish secrets in its basement.

He’s earnest in his prayer warrior business and a personable presence alternating between disarmingly amiable humor and gravely serious pronouncements. He’s a source of tough love, takes no guff from the Vatican bureaucracy, and bravely toodles around on that Vespa without looking silly. It’s his presence that holds together these elements, and stays steady amidst the usual production design of a Catholic thriller. (Surely the denomination’s great contribution to the horror genre is the surplus of great costumes and symbolic accoutrements to haul out for added value.) The wind machines kick up, the lights flicker, the furniture bounces around, and the boy is slathered in grey makeup and speaks vulgar threats with the voice of Ralph Ineson. If you recall director Julius Avery’s World War II thriller Overlord’s Nazi monsters getting blown away in gory spasms or his Stallone-starring retired-superhero picture Samaritan’s walloping sledgehammer hits, you might not be surprised by the extra bloody flourishes by the end. It’s competently and sturdily handled right through the ending, including a wink for a potential sequel—heck, franchise—concept that isn’t a bad idea at all. Watching Crowe stand solid and unwaveringly committed in the center of this is quite fun. I’d do it again if he would.

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