Hjostled at Easter, Julius Avery’s papal pot draws a lively but well-trodden hokum from the writings of Father Gabriel Amorth, the Vatican’s chief demon slayer between 1986 and 2016. The film’s Amorth is a wry old pro, finding levity in a fiendishly tricky day job; not unnecessarily, it is played by Russell Crowe, alternating gruff Italian and Italian-style English, and perhaps contemplating the prospect of a retirement plan at the end of his career. Crowe is by far the film’s strong point, anticipating (some of) our funniest responses and toning down (some) the fragility of the material. We still have movie stars, even though the images projected around them are getting smaller, duller, and sillier.
Crowe’s Amorth steps away from Dan Brown-ish Vatican politics to witness a grim San Sebastián Abbey being renovated by single mother Julia (Alex Essoe). Here, things go awry overnight, mostly with Julia’s son Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) possessed by a pesky demon who scratches “GOD IS NOT HERE” across his host’s chest, like an “I am with Stoopid”. T-shirt slogan. Only Father Gabriele is a worthy enough adversary for this entity: propelling a serious local clergyman (Daniel Zovatto) through an adjoining hallway, Henry’s demon yells, “Bad fucking priest!” – with the voice of Finchy from The Office, for additional laughs. The ensuing grunt is like The Exorcist remade as a TikTok video.
Despite the presence of Franco Nero, enlisted for a few days as an unspecific pope, there remains no trace of theological seriousness, even after the demon-baiting pause to allow the genius Gabriele to uncover the long-buried secret of the abbey. Dim lighting only partially obscures the second-hand possession movie imagery, but at least Avery keeps everything moving, which elevates this above those slow-moving Conjuring films. Racing to its splashy finale, it pretty much qualifies as an animated schlock, and is probably your only chance to see Crowe in flowing dresses piloting a Vespa with Faith No More strains.