Like many stars of yore, Russell Crowe has reached the age for exploitation movies, as we used to call them. Hollywood as a whole has reached that age, and horror has gradually become the most profitable type of this genre—production costs are low and audiences do not shy away from disturbing images. In this odd situation, reminiscent of the 1970s, it's becoming possible to have movies about the most neglected phenomenon in our society: religion.
Crowe brings the two together in The Pope's Exorcist, now playing in 3,600 theaters across the nation and on track to become profitable next week, since it only cost $18 million to make and has a worldwide gross nearing $40 million. He'll make a pretty penny off this movie—and he's worth every cent.
Crowe stars as Gabriele Amorth, a very famous priest in the Catholic world, author of multiple books, and who really was the pope's exorcist. But Crowe plays him as something of a parody of a Hell's Angel—heaven's angel, if you will. He's old, fat, likes whiskey, and has a massive beard, though he rides a Vespa scooter instead of a Harley chopper. He also cracks wise and brims with confidence, so you can hardly tell he's about 60. And he's a convincing Italian, as proven by his accent and his contemptuous refusal to drink cappuccino in the afternoon. It's a breakfast drink, and no self-respecting exorcist goes to Starbucks. Forza Italia!
Father Gabriele is also completely loyal to the pope, played by Spaghetti Western actor Franco Nero (an exploitation genre itself), who sends him to investigate a demonic event in Spain. If you've ever heard of Spain and the Catholic Church, especially from people who don't like it, you already know the story is going to be about the Spanish Inquisition. You may have heard that the Inquisition was bad, but what this movie presupposes is, what if that was the result of demonic possession?
Stretching common opinion by recourse to extreme examples is what makes both science fiction and horror so exciting. But the real shock of the movie is that the Catholics are the good guys. Not just the cool, irreverent priest, nor the legendary actor pope, but the Church as a whole, its history and organization. The bad guy is the liberal American cardinal who doesn't believe evil is real. And, of course, the devil that needs exorcising—I don't think even a horror movie would go so far to suggest liberals need exorcism.
The possession story starts as you might expect: American family inherits formerly sacred place, proceeds to turn it into real estate, all hell breaks loose. It's the story of modernity gone wrong, and feminism also plays a part—there's no father, and the mother cannot deal with the kids, who have gotten out of control. When her son becomes disturbed, she takes him to the hospital, but medical investigation fails to help. So she sends for a priest, who in turn receives the help of Father Gabriele.
This is where the story gets unexpectedly interesting. The movie is really about the troubles of the Church—it's not just the devil testing the faith of the priest, but about the religion as a whole. The Inquisition is suggested as a model for understanding the recent scandal of the sexual abuse of children, and the priests' struggle in the movie is a model for a restoration of the Church's moral strength through confronting that evil. It's surpassing strange that this should all occur in a horror movie, but there's no reason to doubt it—after all, the horror is not subtle. The only question is whether the viewers take it seriously.
The movie's references are even more to the point, though unlikely to be noticed by the audience. It's set in 1986, the year the real Father Gabriele became the pope's exorcist, during the pontificate of St. John Paul II. To some extent, the movie turns into an action flick and features a '60s movie-style secret organization for devil fighting. It's ludicrous but also suggests it's a very earnest metaphor for the attempt by that pope and his successor Benedict XVI to restore Catholic confidence and demand seriousness about good and evil.
The mixture of horror clichés and moral earnestness beggars belief, as does cutting between an action-horror fight with the devil and symbolic suffering in the Vatican. But that confrontation is a climactic heroic affirmation of the most distinctive institution of the Catholic Church, the one that's come under attack the most in the post-1960s world—the celibacy of the priests. I'm not sure I've ever seen such a thing in a movie, but I certainly didn't expect it in The Pope's Exorcist.
So why does the film works stylistically, even though it's not impressive in terms of skill, and Crowe is the only impressive talent on display? It works because he plays a very likable character, a principled man, but a comic one. We seldom see priests in movies, and it's almost unimaginable to have a priest turn hero, so comedy needs to ease anxiety. It's also not clear where priests fit in society, so it's hard to take them seriously in movies—are they just like us, or are they figures of authority?
Since The Pope's Exorcist is a horror version of spiritual warfare, it earnestly takes the latter position, yet everyone involved knows the audience disagrees. That creates the tension needed for a great story, but they couldn't get the talent necessary to turn these ideas into a cinematic experience. Maybe you cannot hire talent to tell a Catholic horror. At any rate, it almost never happens. The result is an interesting rather than a good movie.
But this is no small achievement. The Pope's Exorcist is Russell Crowe's best work since The Nice Guys (2016), the Shane Black neo-noir comedy costarring Ryan Gosling. Crowe looks completely at home in the role of Father Gabriele and in the story as a whole, which is a sign of the movie's promise. It's also a sign of what his late career could be, if he gets such roles mixing his manly presence with the wisdom of experience and making comic indulgence for the audience, which is skeptical, but admires him nonetheless.
Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a film critic for Law & Liberty, the Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty, and The Free Press.