‘Unreliable splatter’: Vatican exorcists denounce Russell Crowe’s Pope’s Exorcist | Film

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‘Unreliable splatter’: Vatican exorcists denounce Russell Crowe’s Pope’s Exorcist | Film

Most professions are flattered by the attentions of Hollywood. Yet a body representing the real-life practitioners depicted in new Russell Crowe horror The Pope’s Exorcist have condemned the film as “unreliable … splatter cinema”.

The film’s plot – which posters declare was “inspired by the actual files of Father Gabriele Amorth, Chief Exorcist of the Vatican” – sees Crowe play Amorth, tasked with investigating a young boy’s possession. In the process, he uncovers a “centuries-old conspiracy” that the Vatican has “desperately tried to keep hidden”.

The star is then seen angering panels of official clergy with his loose-cannon, maverick approach to exorcism, before confronting the possessor of the cursed child in a dramatic spiritual battle.

In a statement issued last month, the International Association of Exorcists (IAE) called the title of the film “pretentious” and claimed that its Da Vinci Code-esque conspiratorial plot poses “unacceptable doubt” to the public as to who “the real enemy is, the devil or ecclesiastical power”.

Amorth, who died in 2016, helped found the IAE – a pressure group within the Vatican – in 1994. Although it was initially snubbed by Pope John Paul II, since 2014, the IAE has enjoyed the official stamp of approval for its activities.

“The end result is to instil 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,” the group said. “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.”

The IAE made its statement based on a viewing of the film’s trailer, and promised it would be commenting further once the full feature had been seen.

The Pope’s Exorcist is now on general release – it came out in cinemas worldwide on Good Friday – yet such a statement has not yet been issued. The International Association of Exorcists did not respond to a request for comment; nor did Sony Pictures, the film’s director, Julius Avery, or Crowe.

One Catholic journalist based in the Vatican last week linked Crowe’s apparent reluctance to conduct interviews pegged to the film with the Pope’s rejection of Crowe’s 2014 drama, Noah, which the official Vatican newspaper labelled a “missed opportunity” that ignores God.

The real Amorth was an antifascist partisan in the second world war who claimed to have performed 60,000 lesser and major exorcisms throughout his life, talking to the devil “every day” (who would respond “in Italian”). He also claimed the devil occupied the Vatican, and that those possessed by him would vomit up shards of glass and iron.

Yet he was also a cinema fan and enjoyed friendships with the likes of William Friedkin, director of his favourite film, 1973’s The Exorcist.

Dr Joseph Laycock, assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University and author of The Penguin Book of Exorcisms, says that the IAE may be “trying to have it both ways”.

“I think they are fully aware they’ve benefited immensely from films like The Exorcist and the general interest in exorcism that horror movies have created in the public,” says Laycock. “At the same time they’re saying: what we do is very serious, and this is just a movie. I see this a little bit as biting the hand that feeds them.”

The Catholic church first published the Rituale Romanum in 1614, which laid down the rules for how exorcisms should be performed. As recently as 1990, the church was sanctioning the televising of such rituals, but they have more recently become a more contentious issue.

Laycock suggests Pope Francis has had to play the role of an exorcism centrist, walking a “tightrope” between two factions within the church: those embarrassed by the concept of demonology, and subscribers to the idea.

Such division on exorcism was exemplified by the response to Friedkin’s Exorcist, with some decrying the film as “spiritual pornography” that cheapened and sensationalised Christianity, while others, such as Amorth, were pleased it had ignited conversation about Satan again.

Because The Exorcist showed that the church appeared to hold some power in the struggle between good and evil, it was welcomed by those scandalised by Rosemary’s Baby, released five years earlier. American religious censorship group the Catholic Legion of Decency forbade the faithful from watching Roman Polanski’s drama about a young woman, played by Mia Farrow, who is impregnated by the devil.

The Catholic church in the US and Italy actively promotes its exorcism activities. Organisations such as the Colegio de Exorcistas Arquidiócesis Primada de México provide training to would-be ordained demonslayers internationally, and every diocese is supposed to have its own exorcist.

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