Men with Beards: A Review of ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’

Satan is real. . .and really dangerous.

C.S. Lewis put it succinctly in the preface to The Screwtape Letters:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves (the devils) are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist (1973), made a documentary, released in 2017, called The Devil and Father Amorth. “Amorth” referring, of course, to Fr. Gabriele Amorth, chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome from 1986 until 2016. Friedkin’s documentary begins in conversation with Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of The Devil (1977), Satan(1981), Lucifer (1984), Mephistopheles (1986) and The Prince of Darkness (1988), in which Burton takes up where Lewis left off:

People ought to stay away from the subject as much as possible. The more you open yourself to thinking about this stuff and start feeling about this stuff, the more room you allow for the supernatural power of evil to come in.

Friedkin chose not to stay away. He filmed Fr. Amorth doing one of his last exorcisms: of an Italian woman, Christina, whom Amorth had already exorcized eight times.

Father Amorth was a fan of William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist, and, especially, Mr. Friedkin’s film version, so when the director wrote to him asking for a meeting, the priest agreed.

The Devil and Father Amorth provides interesting background on the future exorcist’s life and career, and, as a result of their meeting, Amorth invited Friedkin to film Christina’s ninth exorcism, with the condition that there be no film crew; just Friedkin and his handheld camera, although the room in which Friedkin filmed was actually filled with people, mostly Christina’s friends and family.

Fr. Amorth

Christina’s demon’s voice is truly otherworldly. The exorcism is harrowing. And unsuccessful.

Friedkin then talks to scientists about demonic possession, all of whom are agnostic at best. He also speaks to Bishop Robert Barron, who admits he could not do an exorcism: “I would never dare to do that. I think it’s dangerous ground.” He says he’d need a lot more spiritual training. Friedkin is nonplussed.

The documentary ends with scenes of Father Amorth’s funeral, in which one notes that Italians don’t dress any better than Americans at a requiem Mass.

All that by way of background, because this is actually a review of a new film, ostensibly based upon Fr. Amorth’s own writings, called The Pope’s Exorcist.

Based on images I’ve seen, the last pope to sport a beard was Innocent XII. (He died in 1700 at 85.) In The Pope’s Exorcist, a bearded Franco Nero plays a character called “The Pope” (no name or number). Father Amorth was clean-shaven throughout is long life. (He died in 2016 at 91.) But Russell Crowe, who plays Amorth in the movie, sports a substantial beard.

Is this because both actors had upcoming projects in which beards are required? No matter. The point of the film isn’t verisimilitude regarding any real-life characters – or anything else. The Pope’s Exorcist is meant to scare us. It mostly fails.

Yet Russell Crowe mostly succeeds. He seems, approaching 60, to have put the svelte Oscar-winning star of Gladiator (2000) behind him in favor of a career as a more full-figured character actor. Flashes of the steely-eyed Stoicism of Maximus Decimus Meridius come through in his Fr. Amorth, who isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with the Devil, but the thing that more bedevils the devils than Christian Stoicism is the exorcist’s world-weary wit.

Russell Crowe as Fr. Amorth

The demon mocks Amorth’s lofty reputation as the World’s Most Famous Exorcist, insisting he is the priest’s worst nightmare. No, Amorth/Crowe says, a twinkle in his eye, “My worst nightmare is France winning the World Cup.”

And who knows? Maybe that sort of dismissive insouciance is exactly what’s required to cast out demons, who, after all, are defined by their pridefulness, taking themselves altogether too seriously.

As in Friedkin’s much better (and scarier) The Exorcist – really, the standard by which all other exorcism films must be judged – The Pope’s Exorcist teams up an experienced older priest with a younger one (Fr. Esquibel, played by Daniel Zovatto) in a semi-religious setting: a desacralized Spanish abbey, instead of the environs of Catholic Georgetown University, wherein special effects abound. “Unleash hell,” as General Decimus says in Gladiator, and cue the projectile vomiting and the possessed climbing walls and heads spinning 360 degrees.

The oddest scene in The Pope’s Exorcist isn’t the climactic one near film’s end in the abbey dungeon in which a blood-drenched nude woman sexually assaults Father Esquibel, but one near the start of the movie as Father Amorth, about to face a mini-inquisition over a faked exorcism, walks through a Vatican atrium, crowded with busy Vatican clerics and employees, coming and going God only knows where, as a priest walks among them swinging a censer, smoke billowing.

Two stories run parallel before colliding: Fr. Amorth’s interactions in Rome with The Pope et alii and an American family in Spain facing demonic possession. This second subplot seems odd from the start.

A widowed American mother with a teen daughter and son of about 10 arrive at the ancient Spanish abbey to oversee its renovation. It’s the ancestral possession of their late husband and father. Selling the structure will solve the family’s money woes. It appears they’ll need to spend millions in order to eke out a few thousand, almost certainly ensuring their financial ruin. Of course, the ramshackle ruin is haunted. And in a parody of Monty Python’s famous sketch: you pretty much expect the Spanish Inquisition. O, the things this Catholic Church conceals!

Julius Avery’s film is little more than a shallow paean to Mr. Friedkin’s classic. It has its moments; just too few to make it worth seeing: and more Freud than Friedkin.


The film is rated R for copious foul language and some nudity, so don’t take the kids. With Alex Essoe, Peter DeSouza-Feighoney, and Laurel Marsden as the ill-fated American family come to Spain, and featuring Bianca Bardoe as the ghost of Rosaria (whom Amorth had also failed to exorcise), and Carrie Munro as Adella, the woman all in . . . red.

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s Three Faces of Evil

David Warren’s The Devil and the Inscrutability of the Defeated

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.