On the face of it, “The Pope’s Exorcist” would have you believe that it’s rooted in the real-life experiences of the late Father Gabriele Amorth, the Catholic priest who served for 30 years as the head exorcist of the Diocese of Rome. Its screenwriting credits proclaim as much, for starters, while a surfeit of onscreen dates and locations in the early going lend proceedings the faintest of docudrama veneers; moreover, the film is backed by the non-profit production arm of the Jesuit research university Loyola Marymount, with Loyola rector Father Edward J. Siebert among its executive producers.
Even Catholics in high places, it turns out, have a sense of humor: You needn’t wait for the “work of fiction” disclaimer in the closing credits to discern that “The Pope’s Exorcist” is ripely fantastical trash, inspired by Amorth’s work in much the same way that SunnyD is inspired by Florida oranges, and no less enjoyable for those liberties. Rather than the Bible or any of Amorth’s autobiographies, Julius Avery’s film instead swears by the trusty story template shaped by every demonic-possession horror film since “The Exorcist” a full half-century ago, as a hapless American teen is inhabited by an ancient minion of Satan with increasingly yucky, upchucky consequences, while a venerable priest is called upon to clear up the mess.
The film’s devout faith in that formula largely protects it from significant scares or surprises, as a thin, by-the-numbers script from Michael Petroni (“The Rite”) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (“The Unholy”) adheres to expectations even before its characters set foot in the most plainly spooked Catholic abbey you ever did see. And yet “The Pope’s Exorcist” still exerts a lurid B-movie pull, in part because Australian genre stylist Avery demonstrates some command of fire-and-brimstone theatrics, but mostly thanks to Russell Crowe: As the film’s version of Father Amorth by way of Damien Karras, the slumming Oscar champ props up proceedings with just the right balance of gruff, paternalistic credibility and wry, self-mocking irony.
A jokey prologue introduces Amorth — resplendent in black robes, astride an amusingly dainty Vespa scooter — as he attends to a supposedly bedeviled youth in a rural Italian village. The kid shows “all the classical signs of possession,” Amorth is told; one of them, in one of the script’s wittier flourishes, is a sudden command of English. Amorth determines that the boy isn’t possessed but psychologically tormented: The bulk of his cases turn out as such, he explains to a skeptical Vatican tribunal keen to cancel his position. But real-deal demonic evil still surfaces from time to time — most prominently, it turns out, at a derelict Castilian abbey improbably inherited by recently widowed American Julia (Alex Essoe) and her two children, sullen Amy (Laurel Marsden) and sensitive Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), who hasn’t spoken a word since witnessing his father’s death a year before.
One look at Henry’s harrowed, fawn-eyed visage and you know he’s a sitting duck for any stray malevolent spirits seeking a soul to feed on — and there can be no shortage of those in this murky, rubble-strewn Gothic playground, splendidly imagined by production designer Alan Gilmore, in which Julia sets up house with all the breezy naïveté of one who’s never seen a horror film before. “The Pope’s Exorcist” is set in 1987, with “The Exorcist” presumably fresh in the collective cultural memory, though nobody comments on the resemblance when Henry adopts a deep, Mephistophelian growl (courtesy of Ralph Ineson, no less) and starts spitting lewd obscenities at his mom.
Matters deteriorate from there, and with local Spanish priest Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) at a loss, the Pope himself (a wheezing, sparely used Franco Nero) sends Amorth to the rescue. Cue much fretful incantation, fruitless thrusting of crucifixes in the general direction of unappreciative demons, and said demons lobbing battered human bodies across the room like softballs. Dramatically, the problem with much of this horror subgenre is that Catholic weaponry doesn’t work until all of a sudden it does. “The Pope’s Exorcist” fills in this lull with some dubious historical excavation that winds up fancifully blaming Satanic possession for the sins of the Spanish Inquisition — nice reprieve for the Catholic Church there — before Amorth finds his mojo and the film enters its final, hilariously gaudy good-versus-evil showdown.
Avery’s A24-released debut “Son of a Gun” promised hipper genre workouts than this, but he nonetheless throws himself into these churchy, borderline-camp pyrotechnics — complete with grisly, crimson-eyed prosthetics, wrathful explosions and a digital tornado of symbolically loaded red cardinals — with aplomb. He’s aided in this regard by DP Khalid Mohtaseb’s artfully dank lensing in shades of green and gold and gunge, and the shrieking ceremonials of Jed Kurzel’s suitably unrestrained score. “You don’t get to stay handsome in this business for long,” Amorth sighs, but the film mostly manages it.
It’s Crowe, amid all this cheerful bad taste, who approaches the material with something like class: Ever the Richard Burton of our age, and now sealing the parallel with his own “Exorcist” knockoff, he brings a regal bearing and grimacing, off-script air of resignation to Amorth that both dignifies the film and meets it precisely at its level, matching molten cheese with well-cured ham. It’s not every actor who can repeat “our sins will seek us out” a dozen times in a cod-Italian accent while maintaining both composure and a twitch of mirth. If this hysterical hackwork has any soul at all, Crowe just about saves it.