The trailer of the upcoming Russell Crowe movie The Pope’s Exorcist indicates that the film might not do justice to the Italian exorcist Father Gabriel Amorth or the rite of exorcism as practiced in the Catholic Church, according to an exorcist organization Amorth himself helped to found.
The International Association of Exorcists on March 7 voiced concern that the film seems to fall under the category of “splatter cinema,” which it calls a “sub-genre of horror.”
The Vatican, the statement said, is filmed with a high-contrast “chiaroscuro” effect seen in film noir.
This gives the film a Da Vinci Code effect to instill in the public the usual doubt: who is the real enemy? The devil or ecclesiastical ‘power’?” the exorcists' association said.
While special effects are “inevitable” in every film about demonic possession, “everything is exaggerated, with striking physical and verbal manifestations, typical of horror films,” the group said.
“This way of narrating Don Amorth’s experience as an exorcist, in addition to being contrary to historical reality, distorts and falsifies what is truly lived and experienced during the exorcism of truly possessed people,” said the association, which claims more than 800 exorcist members and more than 120 auxiliary members worldwide.
“In addition, it is offensive with regard to the state of suffering in which those who are victims of an extraordinary action of the devil find themselves,” the group’s statement added. The statement responded to the release of the movie trailer and promised a more in-depth response to the film’s April 14 theatrical release.
Father Amorth, who died at age 91 in 2016, said he performed an estimated 100,000 exorcisms during his life. He was perhaps the world’s best-known exorcist and the author of many books, including An Exorcist Tells His Story, reportedly an inspiration for the upcoming movie.
Several of Father Amorth’s books are carried by the U.S. publisher Sophia Institute Press. The publisher’s newly released book The Pope's Exorcist: 101 Questions About Fr. Gabriele Amorth is an interview in which the priest addresses many topics ranging from prayer to pop music.
Michael Lichens, editor and spokesperson at Sophia Institute Press, voiced some agreement with the exorcist group.
“The International Association of Exorcists is right to be concerned and I’m thankful for their words,” Lichens told CNA. “My hope is that audiences will remember that Father Amorth is a real person with a great legacy and perhaps a few moviegoers will look up an interview or pick up his books.”
“This was a man who included Saint Padre Pio and Blessed Giacomo Alberione as mentors, as well as Servant of God Candido Amantini who was his teacher for the ministry of exorcism,” he said. “Father Amorth fought as a partisan as a young man and grew to fight greater evil as an exorcist. His life is an inspiration and I know that his work and words will still reach many.”
Amorth was born in Modena, Italy on May 1, 1925. In wartime Italy, he was a soldier with the underground anti-fascist partisans. He was ordained a priest in 1951. He did not become an exorcist until 1986, when Cardinal Ugo Poletti, the vicar general of the Diocese of Rome, named him the diocesan exorcist.
The priest was frequently in the news for his comments on the subject of demonic forces. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph in 2000, he said, “I speak with the devil every day. I talk to him in Latin. He answers in Italian. I have been wrestling with him, day in, day out, for 14 years."
The movie The Pope’s Exorcist claims to be “inspired by the actual files of the Vatican’s chief exorcist.” The Sony Pictures movie stars the New Zealand-born actor Russell Crowe as Father Amorth. Crowe’s character wears a gray beard and speaks English with a noticeable accent.
“The majority of cases do not require an exorcism,” the Father Amorth character says in the movie’s first trailer. A cardinal explains that Crowe’s character recommends 98% of people who seek an exorcism to doctors and psychiatrists instead.
“The other 2%... I call it… evil,” Crowe adds.
The plot appears to concern Father Amorth’s encounter with a particular demon. Crowe’s character suggests the Church “has fought this demon before” but covered it up.
“We need to find out why,” he says.
The trailer shows short dramatic scenes of exorcism, including a confrontation between Father Amorth and a girl apparently suffering demonic possession.
The International Association of Exorcists said such a representation makes exorcism become “a spectacle aimed at inspiring strong and unhealthy emotions, thanks to a gloomy scenography, with sound effects such as to inspire only anxiety, restlessness and fear in the viewer.”
“The end result is to instill the conviction that exorcism is an abnormal, monstrous and frightening phenomenon, whose only protagonist is the devil, whose violent reactions can be faced with great difficulty,” said the exorcist group. “This is the exact opposite of what occurs in the context of exorcism celebrated in the Catholic Church in obedience to the directives imparted by it.”
CNA sought comment from Sony Pictures and The Pope’s Exorcist executive producer Jesuit Father Edward Siebert, but did not receive a response by publication.
Father Amorth co-founded the International Association of Exorcists with Father René Laurentin in 1994. In 2014 the Catholic Church recognized the group as a Private Association of the Faithful.
The association trains exorcists and promotes their incorporation into local communities and normal pastoral care. It also aims to promote “correct knowledge” about exorcism ministry and collaboration with medical and psychiatric experts who have competence in spirituality.
Exorcism is considered a sacramental, not a sacrament, of the Church. It is a liturgical rite that only a priest can perform.
Hollywood made the topic a focus most famously in the 1973 movie The Exorcist, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty.
“Most movies about Catholicism and spiritual warfare sensationalize,” Lichens of Sophia Institute Press told CNA. “Sensationalism and terror sell tickets. As a fan of horror movies, I can understand and even appreciate that. As a Catholic who has studied Father Amorth, though, I think such sensationalism distorts the important work of exorcism.”
“On the other hand, The Exorcist made the wider public more curious about this overlooked ministry. That is a good thing that came out, despite other reservations and concerns,” he continued. “Still, I would love it if a screenwriter and director spoke to exorcists and tried to show the often-quotidian parts of the ministry.”
An unhealthy curiosity can be a problem, said Lichens.
“When I work as a spokesperson for Father Amorth’s books, I am always concerned about inspiring curiosity about the demonic,” he told CNA. “As Christians, we know we have nothing to fear from the demonic but curiosity might lead some to want to seek out the supernatural or the demonic. Father Amorth has dozens of stories of people who found themselves afflicted after party game seances.”
Lichens encouraged those who are curious to read more of Father Amorth’s writings, some of which are excerpted on the Catholic Exchange website. Sophia Institute Press has published Diary of an American Exorcist by Monsignor Stephen Rosetti and The Exorcism Files by the American lay Catholic Adam Blai.
“First and foremost, Father Amorth was involved in a healing ministry,” said Lichens. “Like other exorcists, his work often involved doctors in physical and mental health because the goal is to bring healing and hope to the potentially afflicted.”
“Those of us who read [Father] Amorth might have been excited to read first-hand accounts of spiritual warfare, but readers quickly see a man whose heart was always full of love for those who sought his help,” he added.
The International Association of Exorcists, for its part, praised the 2016 documentary Deliver Us, saying this shows “what exorcism really is in the Catholic Church and “the authentic traits of a Catholic exorcist.” It shows exorcism as “a most joyful event,” in their view, because through experiencing “the presence and action of Christ the Lord and of the Communion of the Saints,” those who are “tormented by the extraordinary action of the devil gradually find liberation and peace.”