‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ Review: Russell Crowe Stars In A Must-See Modern Horror

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The Pope's Exorcist (2023) © Jonathan Hession/Sony Pictures via AP

A new take on a very common horror story. There may not be a whole lot of gore or jump scares, but a strong storyline helps The Pope’s Exorcist impress.

★★★★✰

Exorcism is one of the more prevalent themes to show up in the horror genre over the years. It seems fitting that The Pope’s Exorcist hit the big screen in 2023, 50 years after William Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist was released. Despite the gap in time, the two operated on similar budgets.

Russell Crowe is the major name to feature in this film, starring as Father Gabriele Amorth. He plays out the life of the religious figure, whose time on earth was certainly fascinating: Amorth served as the Chief Exorcist to the Vatican for several decades and, before his passing in 2019, he claimed that he had performed over 160,000 exorcisms. Being the expert in his field, he is called over to San Sebastian in Spain, where young Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) is displaying some worrying symptoms.

Starting first with the scenery of the film: it has a very picturesque backdrop on its side. The San Sebastian Castle (which is actually Dromore Castle in Limerick, Ireland) is surrounded by a luscious forest area. In the day, it is a particularly pleasant setting, only for the darkness to descend both figuratively and literally, as is typical of many horror films.

Anyone who loves horror films all about gore and being scared out of their skin will have to go elsewhere. For a so-called horror film, The Pope’s Exorcist isn’t actually very scary at all. Some of the lines growled by a possessed Henry are more humorous than anything, the film in general having an underlying comedic tone. This is encapsulated in Father Amorth, who, in spite of the severity of the situation, regularly cracks jokes (as is part of his character).

The Light vs Dark and Good vs Evil battles on display are tracked for the duration, keeping the viewer invested.

Where a horror film doesn’t have that fear factor, it is very easy for it to become a snooze fest. However, that isn’t the case here, as Julius Avery and his team have constructed a very tight narrative. The history of Amorth is explored at the beginning as he uses a pig to lure the devil out of another young man. The castle’s background is touched on in little depth, but this works in the story’s favour, as it leaves the viewer guessing, and is one of very few criticisms that can be levelled at this picture.

The score can be used to build tension in horror movies, the iconic music of both Michael Myers and Ghostface being the obvious references point in this genre. This is the third film that Australian singer-songwriter Jed Kurzel has worked on with Avery and it shows—The Babadaook being another must-watch.

The Pope’s Exorcist (2023) © Jonathan Hession/AP

Despite Russell Crowe being the big name here, the acting holds up across the board very well indeed. Henry’s mother Julia (Alex Essoe) and sister Amy (Laurel Marsden) put on very convincing performances with Amorth’s right-hand man Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto), enjoying major character development over the course of 103 minutes. Going back to Crowe/Amorth and seeing him ride around on his beloved Vespa was a highlight, as one Twitter user pointed out:

One theme that shone through was religion, which is rarely combined with horror in the way that this film does. Being based on a true story, there is more leeway to get away with that, but being able to understand the inner workings of the Vatican and what it means to be The ‘Pope’s Exorcist‘ made for a fascinating watch.

This is a hugely aesthetically pleasing work of art that presents a modern take on the horror genre. The Light vs Dark and Good vs Evil battles on display are tracked for the duration, keeping the viewer invested. At the end of the day, this film is worth taking the trip to a cinema for.

The Verdict

It is easy enough to see why this film has received mixed reviews to date, but there is a lot to enjoy in The Pope’s Exorcist. Watching a horror film in the darkness of a cinema always enhances the experience and this one is engaging right until the very end.

The Pope’s Exorcist is in cinemas now.

Words by Jamie Rooke


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