Hollywood, exorcisms and evil

(Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Hollywood has recently given us a new movie about the existence of evil, with Russell Crowe starring as the late, real-life Vatican exorcist, Fr Gabriel Amorth.

In The Pope's Exorcist, the hero of Gladiator has transitioned from one Roman amphitheatre to another. In Gladiator, Crowe showed us the power of indomitable masculinity, enthused with raw courage, self-giving determination, skilled beyond others in the conflict of the body.

And now, in The Pope's Exorcist, he moves to a different amphitheatre in Rome: that of the struggle between spiritual good and spiritual evil. It's an amphitheatre that also calls for courage, skill, determination, fearlessness and skills beyond others, but it is the conflict for the soul.

Hollywood's relationship with evil is a complex one. In one sense it serves evil daily. It glamourizes lust, revenge, hatred, pride, greed and power in almost every film it makes.

But the act of glamourizing them is also the act of disguising them. It sells evil as good; it promotes corruption as desirable and necessary. Like the serpent in the first garden, its task is to make false promises to disguise evil as good, and corrupt first human choice, and then human appetite, leaving us addicted to the narcotics of the lower self, and out of reach of the salvation of our souls.

So how did Hollywood come to interest itself in the unmasking of evil and task itself with presenting real evil in a struggle with real good?

Not by any strategy for entertainment, but because although corruption is attractive, good is also attractive - and more deeply and more enduringly. If ever there was an argument for faithful Christians working in the media, the successful production of this film reminds us how important it is.

Michael Patrick Kaczmarek, a New Mexico-based filmmaker and one of the film's producers, has told of how, when he first made overtures to Fr Amorth through his publisher in 2015, he got the same answer everyone else did: they simply didn't trust that filmmakers wouldn't superficially sensationalise the material. But Kaczmarek somehow managed to persuade them that he had a genuine religious and philosophical interest.

Outside traditional Catholics Fr Gabriel Amorth is little known. But to those of us who had any experience in the ministry of deliverance, his books are gold mines not only of information, but spirituality, theology and philosophy - the fruit of some 40 years as the Diocese of Rome's chief exorcist - a position he held until his death in 2016 at the age of 91.

In the course of his ministry, Amorth claimed to have carried out no fewer than 60,000 exorcisms - little wonder then that he apparently claimed The Exorcist as his favourite movie! And some of these experiences made their way into his first book, the 1990 bestselling An Exorcist Tells His Story, which is well worth a read.

The whole thrust of social perspective had moved from spirituality to psychology and psychiatry, and so the practice of exorcism fell out of favour and out of fashion, but it was within this very context that Amorth founded the International Association of Exorcists to help train clergy - increasingly numbed and befuddled by the premises of secularism and materialism - to deal with the reality of the great confrontation with evil.

According to Amorth, it was standard practice in his deliverance ministry to assiduously look for normal medical, psychological and psychiatric explanations first. Only when these had been exhausted was the metaphysical or spiritually supernatural entertained.

The movie, interestingly, makes a point of explaining this. In one scene, Crowe's Amorth is questioned by a cardinal about the 98 per cent of people who come to him who he believes really need a psychiatrist, not an exorcist. In dramatic Hollywood style, when the cardinal asks him about the remaining 2 per cent, he replies: "Ah, the other 2 per cent — this is something that has confounded all of science and all of medicine for a very long time ... I call it evil."

Critics have noted that the bald and bespectacled Amorth bears no physical likeness to the Hollywood handsome Crowe, and it is true that the actor does bring something of a filmic glamour to this humble priest's life that the real Amorth would likely have found humorous. In that sense, the film, set in 1987, is a curious mixture of sensationalism and perceptive spiritual analysis. Yet, it covers an enduringly interesting topic.

The Catholic theology of exorcism relies heavily on a hierarchical understanding of reality. Demons, thought to be given a certain amount of freedom to cause trouble, are ultimately under authority. With the right authority, they can be dealt with.

Unsurprisingly, authority is a serious issue within the Catholic Church and so, all exorcists operate under the authority of their bishops, who operate under the authority of the pope, who has the authority of Jesus.

Rather astutely, the plot sees Amorth getting into trouble with a Church tribunal for two very cogent reasons. The first is that some of his accusers don't believe in evil and accuse him of rigging his 'performance'. The second is that he conducted an exorcism without receiving the permission and authority he needed first.

Essentially, Amorth got into trouble with his Catholic authorities in circumstances that would not have caused Anglicans any difficulty, because Episcopal obedience does not carry the same weight. Anglican theology doesn't have a settled ecclesiology with a strict code of obedience, but Catholic ecclesiastical practice very much does.

Following on from this crisis, the film tracks Amorth's journey to Spain where he is to help with an outbreak of evil. The plot contains elements of esoteric excitement reminiscent of some of the gnostic Dan Brown thrillers that got many people worked up a few decades ago - but with some intelligent insights into the ethical and metaphysical world, as both the master and his trainee exorcist realise that they are carrying some sinful baggage that is going to weaken their capacity to effect deliverance - indeed!

In the movie, Amorth's personal history contains a sad event when a mentally ill woman later killed herself after he declined to help her. His colleague Esquibel, on the other hand, slept with a girl he then refused to marry.

It is well known in deliverance circles that demons like to mock any Christian that comes against them with a list of their secret sins. So the solution they adopt in the movie is that, both being priests, they confess their sins to one another, receive absolution, and return to the fight cleansed and renewed. This is realistic.

Of course, Hollywood couldn't resist taking the movie in a Hollywood direction, and it may be a bit of a stretch to persuade a secular and materialistic world that gives little thought to the origins and reality of evil as it interacts with humanity and the choices people make.

Yet in that context the film does some service to the Gospels, where the drama and reality of the demonic colour almost every page. Perhaps one can only take Jesus seriously if we take the reality and the intrusion of evil seriously.

Joseph Laycock, associate professor of religious studies at Texas State University, perceptively told the Associated Press that despite protests from religious circles after the release of such films or television shows, "exorcists do benefit from media even when their portrayal is sensationalized."

Perhaps the public benefit too, since they are informed as well as entertained, and provided with a fresh experience of a worldview that acts as a foundation for Christian belief.

From time to time there are surprising but cogent sources of corroboration. In an April 2021 podcast, the journalist James Delingpole interviewed Jerry Marzinsky, a retired secularist, atheistic psychotherapist who worked with criminally insane people in prisons. Despite his better judgement, he had come to the unavoidable conclusion that he was being confronted by the demonic in his clients and patients.

Even if Fr Amorth did not grow a beard, zip around Rome on a cool vintage scooter, or enjoy Russell Crowe's growling masculine persona, The Pope's Exorcist may act as an introduction to Amorth's work, books and experience of confronting evil and delivering people from its influence and power through a re-presentation of a powerful encounter with Jesus. Entertainment and salvation? A double whammy worth pursuing.