LOS ANGELES — The Rev. Edward Siebert’s journey with “The Pope’s Exorcist,” a film about arguably the most famous exorcist in the Catholic Church, began with an adventuresome visit to Milan about six years ago.
The Jesuit priest recalls sitting at a restaurant sipping wine and mulling the costly airline ticket he had purchased a day earlier. He also worried about the deal he had just closed with the Society of St. Paul to purchase the rights to the life story of the Rev. Gabriele Amorth — the late Pauline priest known as “the James Bond of exorcists.”
Siebert, who teaches film at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and runs the college’s film production company, had no motion picture credits to his name and wondered at the time: “What have I gone and done?”
Today, he heaves a sigh of relief as a version of Amorth’s life unfurls on the big screen as “The Pope’s Exorcist,” starring Oscar-winner Russell Crowe in the titular role. The movie opened Friday in U.S. theaters.
Amorth was appointed chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome in 1986 and remained there until 2016, when he died at age 91. In those three decades, Amorth claimed to have conducted over 60,000 exorcisms. The first of his books, “An Exorcist Tells His Story,” came out in 1990 and was an instant bestseller, translated into 30 languages. That same year, Amorth, who named “The Exorcist” as his favorite film, founded the International Association of Exorcists.
Siebert, one of the film’s executive producers, says he was an unlikely candidate to take on this project. But Michael Patrick Kaczmarek, a New Mexico-based filmmaker he had worked with previously, convinced him of the power of Amorth’s stories, he said.
Kaczmarek, one of the film’s producers, said he reached out to Amorth through his religious order’s publishing company in 2015 and was told by their executives that many had tried to secure film and television rights to the exorcist’s books, “but they were always denied.” But Kaczmarek’s persistence paid off.
“Through the use of translators, I sent Father Amorth detailed correspondence where I assured him of my religious devotion and sincere desire to respect his exorcism ministry,” Kaczmarek said, adding that his partnership with Siebert helped convince Amorth of his intent to preserve the story’s religious integrity.
Siebert said Amorth’s stories initially “frightened him,” but he was touched by the priest’s faith and determination to help people.
Amorth said 98% of the people who came to him needed a psychiatrist, not an exorcist, a detail Crowe’s Amorth clarifies in the film. When a cardinal asks him about the remaining 2%, he says: “Ah, the other 2% — this is something that has confounded all of science and all of medicine for a very long time.” He adds after a dramatic pause: “I call it evil.”
Like Siebert, Crowe has said during various media interviews that he is no horror movie fan, preferring “to sleep deeply at night.” But he said Amorth’s character fascinated him; he read the priest’s first two books and spoke with people who had watched him perform exorcisms. Crowe said two aspects of Amorth’s character hooked him — his “unshakable purity of faith and his wicked sense of humor.”
In the 2017 documentary “The Devil and Father Amorth,” the priest — before beginning an exorcism — can be seen thumbing his nose in the direction of the woman said to have been possessed. It was a gesture he made before each exorcism to let the demon know he wasn’t afraid.
In the “The Pope’s Exorcist,” set in 1987, Crowe’s Amorth heads to Spain with his apprentice, a younger priest, tasked with investigating a young boy’s possession. There he uncovers a “centuries-old conspiracy” that the Vatican has tried to cover up in a plot that appears to channel The Da Vinci Code, Indiana Jones and numerous buddy-cop movies.
Crowe and the film’s creators have taken liberal creative license with Amorth’s character and his stories. Crowe looks nothing like the priest, who was bald-headed, bespectacled and clean-shaven. On screen, Crowe knocks back double espressos and rides a Lambretta scooter through Rome, his cassock billowing in the breeze to the music of Faith No More. His scooter has a Ferrari sticker — a nod to Amorth’s hometown, Modena, where the luxury automaker is based.
Amorth’s convoluted road to the priesthood included fighting as a partisan in World War II, getting a law degree and working as a journalist. He didn’t become an exorcist until he was 61. He was no stranger to controversy, claiming Hitler and Stalin were possessed, that pedophile cults operated within the Vatican, and that yoga and Harry Potter were gateways to the demonic.
Amorth’s work as an exorcist has influenced and inspired many in the Catholic Church who came after him, said Monsignor Stephen J. Rossetti, a psychologist and exorcist in the Archdiocese of Washington who has over 76,000 followers on an Instagram account he started six months ago. Rossetti says there is an increasing and renewed appetite for information about demonic possession and exorcism.
“All of us owe a debt of gratitude to Father Amorth,” Rossetti said. “He kept this ministry alive when the church and society had pretty much ignored it.”
Though exorcism was a recurring part of Jesus Christ’s ministry, Catholic seminarians and priests are not being trained to do it, he said, adding that films like “The Exorcist” have raised awareness about the phenomenon of demonic possessions. Rossetti, like Amorth, maintains that “demonic influences” have increased amid declining faith, a surge in sinning and the practice of occult.
Exorcism when practiced correctly is “an act of healing and faith,” Rossetti said, adding that he has witnessed “darkness and evil” in 15 years as an exorcist.
“Demons do manifest in a session and the exorcist faces an incredibly evil visage that no human can mimic,” he said. “Things do fly across the room. Demons engage in antics like immature 12-year-olds trying to scare you.”
But with faith and God on his side, this has always been a “joyful ministry,” Rossetti said.
The International Association of Exorcists posted a statement on its website criticizing “The Pope’s Exorcist” based on the trailer. The association called it “a show aimed at arousing strong and unhealthy emotions, thanks to a gloomy scenography, with sound effects … to arouse only anxiety, restlessness and fear in the spectator.”
Joseph Laycock, associate professor of religious studies at Texas State University, said 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.”
Laycock’s latest book, “The Exorcist Effect,” looks into the demand the 1973 film created for exorcism; he says the film had a role in shifting the Catholic Church’s attitude toward the practice. He describes Amorth as “the single most important priest in the revival of exorcism” after “The Exorcist” and predicts the rising interest in exorcism will continue.
“The kind of Christianity we had in America during the mid-20th century, emphasizing ethics over the supernatural, was an anomaly,” Laycock said. “Most of Christian history has emphasized the 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, says “The Pope’s Exorcist” has not changed his views about horror films or exorcism; both give him the chills. But it warms his heart to see a priest shown in a positive light after so many films and TV shows have vilified or belittled them.
“It’s good to see a priest talking about prayer, forgiveness, God’s love, and on top of all that, vanquishing demons,” he said. “It feels good to finally see a priest as a hero.”