Review
Culture
4 min read

Silly fun, serious question

The Pope’s Exorcist ask viewers what is it to have faith in the face of true and terrifying inexplicable evil. Priest Yaroslav Walker reviews.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A priest holds a cross up in his hand in a chaotic environment while a colleague looks on
Father Amorth in action, played with commitment by Russell Crowe.
Sony Pictures.

It goes without saying that all contemporary films about demonic possession and exorcism are seen in the light of the great masterwork. 1973’s The Exorcist is pretty much a perfect encapsulation of what an exorcism film needs to have: believable characters, a strong script, proper pacing, and a genuine respect for the concept of the supernatural – all culminating in an opportunity for the viewer to wrestle with their faith. Exorcism films rise or fall by the metric this cinematic cornerstone inaugurated. I’m pleased to say that The Pope’s Exorcist does a reasonably decent job. 

Let’s be clear: it’s silly fun, and a bit of candy-floss fluff, which allows Russell Crowe to launch an assault on yet another accent. Yet, sugary-sweet fun is no bad thing, and underneath the loving horror-genre-cliché surface, there is something of substance to consider. The plot is standard: afflicted family – Julia and her children Amy and Henry – arrive in Spain to oversee the restoration of an old Abbey Julia’s late-husband left the family. Boy is possessed. Boy cannot be saved by medical science, so the exorcist saves the day.  

The performances are all committed, and you can tell the performers are having a great time, Crowe especially.

The possession is quick and effective with scenes suddenly cutting from the horrifying to sanitised medical procedures (an homage, I think, to the great original). Attempts to explain matters away scientifically are attempted and quickly abandoned, and the film is proudly unambiguous. The Holy Father knows of this Abbey, and its dark history, and personally tasks Crowe’s Amorth with uncovering the truth. The film’s pacing is excellent in the first half, and wastes little time in introducing the main players. The script is sharp and lean (for the most part), with minimal exposition, allowing details to emerge naturally. The performances are all committed, and you can tell the performers are having a great time, Crowe especially. The final third is tremendously silly and overblown, and probably could have been cut down dramatically, but one can forgive it its excess for the themes it raises. 

Purportedly based on the autobiographical writing of the late Father Gabriel Amorth, sometime exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, The Pope’s Exorcist could be viewed as shifting the burden of the question posed by the 1973 classic (what does it mean to have faith in the face of true and terrifying inexplicable evil?) to the institutional level. It is 1987 and the winds of modernity are blowing hard. Amorth (Crowe) is a contradiction of a priest – he rides a Vespa scooter, jokes around with nuns, and demonstrates a relaxed attitude with those in authority, and yet his faith in God and his belief in the supernatural is solid. He works tirelessly in a world and a Church that balks at him: expecting rigidity and conformity in outward appearance, yet sceptically admonishing him for his belief. It could’ve just as easily been set in 2023. Such themes resonate in the context of a Western Church still struggling for self-definition in a modern world of which it is ‘in’ but never meant to be ‘of’.

The film is very much speaking into the moment. What is the supernatural, and does the Church even believe in it? 

The question the film raise (whether it means to or not) is how will the Church see itself and its mission in the coming decades. Early on Amorth is admonished by an American cardinal who is intent on making the Church more ‘relevant’ to the modern sceptical generation. He sees little use for the office of exorcist, and seems to disregard the supernatural as fantasy. As Amorth investigates the possession he learns the dark truth of the Abbey and its role in the Spanish Inquisition. He is confronted with the pernicious persistence of sin – his sins, the sins of those around him, and the historic sins of the Church. 

The film is very much speaking into the moment. What is the supernatural, and does the Church even believe in it? What is evil, and what does it mean for a man and for the Church to truly deal with sin? How can the Church speak into a world that does not believe, and yet is not equipped to confront the reality of evil?  

As the film reaches its conclusion it becomes clear that the Enemy does not wish to simply possess a child, but wishes to possess the Church. Watching the film in view of the present struggles the faith faces – a struggle over the very definition of sin, evil, redemption, etc – one can read the demon as a stand-in for the Spirit of the Age. Whether it means to or not, The Pope’s Exorcist asks the viewer to genuinely tackle the question of who ought to direct the Church – contemporary mores or the eternal truth of Christ? The final scene gives a hopeful answer while also hinting at the possibility of sequels. It is camp, it is silly, but it affirms life, goodness, truth, and faith, and I wouldn’t say no to another outing for Crowe as Amorth. 

 

Review
Books
Culture
Identity
Sport
4 min read

What makes fans tick?

Fandom’s remarkable fusing.

Simon is Bishop of Tonbridge in the Diocese of Rochester. He writes regularly round social, cultural and political issues.

Scottish football fans wearing kilts march down a street singing and waving their arms alogt.
Scotland's Tartan Army of football fans.

"A fat, sarcastic Star Trek fan: you must be a devil with the ladies." 

This put down of Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons neatly sums up a prevailing attitude to fans.  To be a committed fan is to devote yourself to a niche pastime; to be weird and nerdy and, simply, not cool.  At its worst, the fan becomes a fanatic, from which the noun is derived; an obsessive who stalks the object of their passion online and, at its most dangerous, offline. 

Times are changing, though, and the internet is chiefly responsible.  Where once fans could feel isolated and able only to relate to fellow afficionados slowly via the postal system, now they can find people who share their love in a handful of clicks and build relationships in real time.  A lot of anguish is spent on how the internet allows people to find extremist chat rooms where abhorrent behaviour is normalised; less attention is given to the wonder of being able to find fellow lovers online of Massey Ferguson tractors, Australian mullets or Rubik’s Cubes.  Many fans feel less alone online, building a new sense of belonging and purpose – a realisation that others will take them seriously. 

Yet experienced from the inside, a remarkable bonding is taking place, where fans not only fuse with others, but with the team itself.   

In Fans: A Journey into the Psychology of Belonging (Picador, 2024), the academic Michael Bond gives a perceptive and generous insight into the world of fandom.  There are Beliebers, Directioners, Trekkers, Swifties, Janeites, Ricardians.  For the uninitiated, that’s lovers of Justin Bieber, One Direction, Star Trek, Taylor Swift, Jane Austen, Richard the Third; though strangely one of the biggest bases of all simply goes by the title Star Wars fans.  Bond spends some time looking at the phenomenon of Michael Jackson.  Professor Gayle Stever has researched the pop star’s fans and found them, like many other fans, to be ‘normal people carrying on normal lives with functioning relationships and jobs, who just had this passion for Michael Jackson’.  Despite the discomfort of idolising a celebrity who lived, and died, with serious child abuse allegations made against him, they saw Jackson as ‘the target of racist abuse and unwarranted criticism throughout his career’. 

Fans often identify very personally with their idols.  Cosplaying conventions allow fans to reinvent themselves and Houston University studies have shown that people can ‘feel less lonely and less anxious in the face of rejection simply by thinking of a favourite TV show’. 

But what of football fans?  Many find the aggressive tribalism involved hard to accept.  I have observed young male fans of London Premier League teams chanting loudly at train stations in a way that made young women nearby shrink away, making me wonder whether my opening line from The Simpsons ought to be re-purposed.  The ritualised conduct of football crowds – the fist pumping, jumping and embracing at a goal, the verbal and hand abuse of opposing players and referees, and the chants that defy pre-match announcements about tolerance at games – can look bizarre and scary.  Yet experienced from the inside, a remarkable bonding is taking place, where fans not only fuse with others, but with the team itself.   

‘... the best of sport is not the earthy moment of victory, but the privilege of watching athletes tilt at divinity.’ 

Emma John

The deeper the love for a club, the greater the joy and the pain at success and failure.  It is a high-risk investment that many stake because it makes them feel so alive.  The peerless interpreter of football fandom, Nick Hornby, says that football is a context where watching becomes doing’.  Anyone whose leg has involuntarily jerked as a player reaches for the ball will grasp that. 

I wonder if some football fans who identify as Christian struggle with the secret reality of uncontrollable mood swings every weekend?  Should a win on a football pitch matter that much, when so many things are so much more important?  They may aspire to the whimsy of Ecclesiastes (there is a time to win and a time to lose, the author nearly said) but feel the coursing testosterone of Samson instead. 

God made us playful, and football is a disarmingly simple game to watch and play.  There is also breathtaking beauty in the movements of its finest exponents, like the choreography of Michael Jackson himself.  If we are called to life in all its fulness, isn’t this also a part of that fulness (even if some games are a stretch)?  

In recent interviews, Nick Hornby has said he couldn’t write Fever Pitch again, his pained love letter to Arsenal FC; middle age has brought a new perspective.  Writing in Prospect magazine (May 2024), sports journalist Emma John says: ‘I have observed many of my sports-loving friends follow the same trajectory…the best of sport is not the earthy moment of victory, but the privilege of watching athletes tilt at divinity’. 

At least, until the final penalty shoot-out, when for the diehard fan it’s absolutely all about the earthly moment of victory.