Russell Crowe's latest film role - The Vatican's 'James Bond of Exorcists'

LOS ANGELES — Rev. Edward Siebert with “The Pope's Exorcist,” a film about the Catholic Church's most famous exorcist, begins with an adventurous visit to Milan some six years ago.

The Jesuit priest recalls sitting in a restaurant sipping wine and contemplating the expensive plane tickets he bought the day before. He is also worried about the deal he recently closed with the Society of St. Paul. Paul to buy the rights to the life story of Reverend Gabriele Amorth – the late Pauline priest known as the “James Bond of exorcist”.

Siebert, who teaches film at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and runs the college's film production company, had no film credits to his name and wondered at the time: “What have I done and am doing?”

Today, he breathed a sigh of relief as Amorth's version of life unfolds on the big screen as “The Pope's Exorcist,” starring Oscar winner Russell Crowe in the titular role. The film opens Friday in US theaters.

Amorth was appointed chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome in 1986 and remained there until 2016, when he died aged 91. In those three decades, Amorth claims to have performed more than 60,000 exorcisms. His first book, “An Exorcist Tells His Story,” came out in 1990 and became an instant bestseller, being translated into 30 languages. That same year, Amorth, who calls “The Exorcist” his favorite film, founded the International Association of Exorcists.

Siebert, one of the film's executive producers, said he was an unlikely candidate to take on the project. But Michael Patrick Kaczmarek, a New Mexico-based filmmaker who had worked with him before, convinced him of the power of Amorth's story, he said.

Kaczmarek, one of the film's producers, said he contacted Amorth through his religious order's publishing company in 2015 and was told by their executives that many had tried to get film and television rights to the books of the exorcists, “but they were always turned down. But Kaczmarek's persistence paid off.

“Through the use of a translator, I sent Father Amorth a detailed correspondence in which I assured him of my religious devotion and sincere desire to honor his exorcism ministry,” said Kaczmarek, adding that his partnership with Siebert helped convince Amorth of his intention to preserve the story. religious integrity.

Siebert said Amorth's stories “terrified him” at first, but he was touched by the priest's faith and determination to help people.

Amorth says 98% of the people who come to him need a psychiatrist, not an exorcist, a detail that is explained by Crowe's Amorth in the film. When a cardinal asked him about the remaining 2%, he said: “Ah, the other 2% – this is something that has puzzled all of science and all of medicine for a very long time.” He added after a dramatic pause: “I call it evil.”

Like Siebert, Crowe has said in various media interviews that he is not a fan of horror films, preferring to “sleep well at night”. But he said the character of Amorth fascinated him; he read the pastor's first two books and spoke to people who had witnessed him perform exorcisms. Crowe said two aspects of Amorth's character captivated him – his “unshakable purity of faith and devilish sense of humor”.

In the 2017 documentary “The Devil and Father Amorth,” the priest – before starting the exorcism – is seen thumbing his nose at the woman who is said to be possessed. It was a gesture he made before every exorcism to let the demon know he wasn't afraid.

In “The Pope's Exorcist”, set in 1987, Crowe's Amorth travels to Spain with his apprentice, a younger priest, who is assigned to investigate the possession of a young boy. There he unravels the “centuries-old conspiracy” that the Vatican is trying to cover up in a plot that seems to channel The Da Vinci Code, Indiana Jones, and many buddy-cop movies.

Crowe and the filmmakers have taken liberal creative license with the Amorth character and story. Crowe looked nothing like a priest, bald, bespectacled, and clean-shaven. On screen, Crowe chugs a double espresso and rides a Lambretta scooter across Rome, his cape fluttering in the wind to the music of Faith No More. His scooter has a Ferrari sticker on it – in reference to Amorth's hometown of Modena, where the luxury automaker is based.

Amorth's convoluted path to the priesthood included fighting as a partisan in World War II, earning a law degree and working as a journalist. He didn't become an exorcist until he was 61 years old. He is no stranger to controversy, claiming that Hitler and Stalin were possessed, that a pedophile cult operated within the Vatican, and that yoga and Harry Potter were gateways to the devil.

Amorth's work as an exorcist has influenced and inspired many in the Catholic Church after him, said Monsignor Stephen J. Rossetti, a psychologist and exorcist in the Archdiocese of Washington who has more than 76,000 followers on an Instagram account he founded six months ago. Rossetti said there was an increasing and renewed desire for information about demonic possession and exorcisms.

“We are all indebted to Pastor Amorth,” said Rossetti. “He kept this ministry alive when the church and society neglected it.”

Although exorcisms were a recurring part of Jesus Christ's ministry, Catholic seminarians and priests were not trained to perform them, he said, adding that films such as “The Exorcist” had raised awareness about the phenomenon of demonic possession. Rossetti, like Amorth, argues that “satanic influence” has increased amid declining faith, increased sin and occult practices.

An exorcism when performed properly is an “act of healing and faith,” Rossetti said, adding that he had witnessed “darkness and evil” in his 15 years as an exorcist.

“Satan really manifests in one session and the exorcist takes on a very evil face which no human can emulate,” he said. “Objects flew across the room. Satan engages in antics like an immature 12 year old trying to scare you.

But with faith and God by his side, it's always a “joyful ministry,” says Rossetti.

The International Association of Exorcist posted a statement on its website criticizing “The Pope's Exorcist” based on the trailer. The Association called it “a performance intended to evoke strong, unhealthy emotions, thanks to a somber screenplay, with sound effects … only to excite the audience's anxiety, trepidation and fear.”

Joseph Laycock, associate professor of religious studies at Texas State University, said that despite outcry from religious circles after the release of such films or television shows, “exorcists benefit from the media even when their portrayal becomes sensationalized.”

Laycock's latest book, “The Exorcist Effect,” examines the 1973 film's request made for an exorcism; he said the film was instrumental in changing the Catholic Church's attitude toward the practice. He described Amorth as “the most important priest in the exorcism revival” after “The Exorcist” and predicted the increased interest in exorcism would continue.

“The kind of Christianity that we had in America during the mid-20th century, which emphasized ethics over the supernatural, was an anomaly,” said Laycock. “Most of Christian history has emphasized supernatural and spiritual warfare. This is Christianity returning to its supernatural roots.”

Siebert, who worked for nearly eight years to bring Amorth's story to the big screen, said “The Pope's Exorcist” has not changed his views on horror films or exorcism; both of them gave him goosebumps. But it warms his heart to see a pastor presented in such a positive light after so many movies and TV shows demonize or belittle them.

“It's good to see a pastor talk about prayer, forgiveness, God's love, and above all, defeating the devil,” he said. “It feels good to finally see a priest as a hero.”