The exploits of Father Amorth come to the screen for the first time in The Pope’s Exorcist. Known by some as the Dean of Exorcists, to others as the Vatican’s Exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth was a real man who held that office for 36 years and was to thousands of people a light in the darkness.
Father Amorth was a frontline crusader in the battle against evil who chronicled his exploits in two memoirs that go far beyond the spooky anecdotes to explore the threats to humanity from demons.
Inspired by the actual files of Father Gabriele Amorth, Chief Exorcist of the Vatican, The Pope’s Exorcist follows Amorth as he investigates a young boy’s terrifying possession and ends up uncovering a centuries-old conspiracy the Vatican has desperately tried to keep hidden.
Directed by Julius Avery, the screenplay was crafted by Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulosn from a screen story by R. Dean McCreary & Chester Hastings and Jeff Katz, based upon the books “An Exorcist Tells His Story” and “An Exorcist: More Stories” by Fr. Gabriele Amorth.
Father Amorth’s unique candor, sense of humor, and insight into the Church’s most secretive rituals made his two memoirs – An Exorcist Tells His Story and An Exorcist: More Stories – into bestsellers. Producer Michael Patrick Kaczmarek was able to option the rights to these works before Father Amorth died in 2016.
Other producers had tried, but failed, to convince Amorth for the opportunity to turn his memoirs into a movie. “I believe I was able to succeed where other producers failed in that I was able to convince Father Amorth about my sincere religious devotion,” explains Kaczmarek. “In our exchanges, I was able to convince him that if he took the chance to work with me, that I would try to make sure the Catholicity would be preserved in the film – and that he would be respected as a person along with the Church and his religious order.”
“These memoirs are a treasure trove of hundreds of stories, anecdotes, real cases, where Father Amorth was exorcising demons. The sky was the limit in terms of the number of stories we could tell,” says Kaczmarek. “My producing partners and I always pitched this as the James Bond of exorcists. There is a whole collection of stories and a whole universe of stories that could be pooled from the two memoirs to support that vision.”
Producer Jeff Katz says that telling an exorcism story through the lens of the Vatican – “the trappings and the intrigues and the conspiracy,” he says – makes the story fresh and new. “People have a natural interest in closed societies, and in a city-state as powerful as the Vatican,” he continues. “There’s so much suspicion of our institutions and our trappings of power. That makes a character like Amorth – a rebel inside – all the more appealing.”
Based on Amorth’s stories, the producers reached out to screenwriter Michael Petroni to craft an original narrative.
“It was easy to connect with Michael,” says Kaczmarek. “He understood this universe and the language exorcists speak. He did a great job of incorporating real Latin prayers, from the book Catholic exorcists use in their work. He brought a great level of authenticity to the script.”
Kaczmarek also notes that the screenwriter wrote a truly scary script that went way beyond the jump scares. “We wanted to explore the demon’s motivation in attacking this boy and this family. Does he have a larger plan and goal?” he explains. “That required our character of Father Amorth to do some serious investigating and uncovering of a secret history, to find connections where the demon might have appeared before.”
In the film, Amorth is equally a man of strong religious convictions and a dogged investigator.
As he seeks to cast out one of the most intransigent demonic possessions of his storied career, the priest will uncover the truth behind a centuries-buried secret and bring to light a much larger conspiracy, despite warnings from the Vatican. “Without question, he is a man of deep faith, but also very definitely, his own man,” says Russell Crowe, who takes on the role of Amorth. “He is determined to be open and upfront; he is not afraid of the failings of humanity. He accepts all of the foibles and quirks of people. That simple level of gut-based honesty helps him do his job.”
“He’s one of those rogues inside an institution – an iconoclast who challenges the status quo,” says director Julius Avery. “I admire that. Throughout his time as the chief exorcist of the Vatican, he was a very controversial figure – he spoke up. He’s a very interesting character.
Avery says that Amorth is distinguished as a character by his seemingly contradictory, but in fact perfectly logical beliefs: a well-educated man, a skeptic versed in modern psychology, he is also a fervent believer in the power of God – and the devil. “I believe that 98% of everything can be explained by science,” says Avery, “but there’s that last 2% that can’t – and that’s what we explore in the movie.”
“So many people came to him for help, and the majority of them, he referred to medical or psychological treatment. Their afflictions had an explanation. But there were also the cases he couldn’t explain,” says producer Doug Belgrad. “Those cases showed him that possession was real and that the devil worked in the form of possessing vulnerable people, turning them to the dark side. Ultimately, his job was to try to save them, save their souls, and rid them of demonic infestation.”
In the film, Father Amorth and his partner, Father Esquibel, played by Daniel Zovatto, investigate a possession at St. Sebastian Abbey in Castile, Spain, where a young family is making a fresh start by renovating the old property. “In the movie, the abbey has a long history with the Catholic Church, and there are some things that happened there which get uncovered,” says Crowe. “These events took place during some of the darkest days of the Catholic Church, as punishment was meted out to people who didn’t measure up to the depth of their belief. We all thought that that was an excellent way to dig deeper into the history of Spain.”
The filmmakers enveloped the story within the Biblical notion of fallen angels. “One of the essential premises of the movie is taken from a description in the Bible talking about Lucifer and fallen angels,” says Crowe. “How they were cast out into Earth and locked underground. Are they vanquished? That becomes a bigger subplot within the course of the film, as the priests start to realize what they may be dealing with.”
Joining the filmmakers as executive producer is Edward Siebert, S.J., a Jesuit priest and founder of Loyola Productions. In both roles, he says, his goal “is to tell stories that matter. Stories that entertain, inform, and inspire.”
That is what drew him to The Pope’s Exorcist. “Stories of good and evil are as old as time,” he says, “but the story of Fr. Amorth and his unique role in fighting evil is an important story to tell. As a filmmaker and a Jesuit priest, I was in a unique position to acquire the rights to Fr. Amorth’s story and help shape the project.” Of course, The Pope’s Exorcist is quite a bit different from other movies for audiences of faith. “Today’s audiences are savvy enough to find meaning in mainstream entertainment, beyond traditional faith-based content,” he explains. “ThePope’s Exorcist reflects on some of the most challenging aspects of faith. When we shed light on sin and evil, it reflects back the pain of our past and present. While the demons in the film may seem extreme and exaggerated, the movements of disturbance and evil inside of us have the power to overtake us. I have always believed that the power of prayer, the naming of demons, the forgiveness of sins, and the conquering of evil are central to faith. Any story that ends with the enemy’s defeat is ultimately a story of hope.”
The Real Father Amorth
Gabriele Amorth was born in the town of Modena, in the north of Italy, in 1925. The youngest son of a lawyer, he had a religious calling at an early age. But fate had different plans. “He had an interesting life from a young age,” says Crowe. “When he was 17, he went to Rome to talk to a senior priest about becoming a priest. The response was: ‘Look, you’re 17. You need to live a little bit more of life before you should follow your calling.’”
When World War II broke out, Amorth was recruited into the Italian Army, but soon switched sides and became a partisan in the fight against the fascists and Nazis. “That seems to be typical of his character,” says Belgrad. “He questioned authority, questioned institutions and fought for what he believed in.”
Crowe continues: “He ended up fighting the fascists. When he came out of that war experience he went to law school.” Amorth briefly became a deputy for Giulio Andreotti, a future Italian prime minister, in the youth wing of the Christian Democratic Party, a Roman Catholic centrist party.
“But his calling never left him,” says Crowe. In 1951, Amorth was ordained to the priesthood. “When he went back to Rome, as an older person with a bit more experience, he was welcomed. Having those experiences makes it better for you when you’re a priest trying to advise people in the community. His colleagues were at ease with the level and depth of his faith and his commitment to the Church.”
In 1986, Rome assigned him to assist Father Candido Amantini, then the Vatican’s chief exorcist. Four years later, he established the International Association of Exorcists, and in 1992, when Father Amantini died, Amorth moved from apprentice to chief exorcist.
“Gabriele Amorth had a purity of faith that gave him a level of courage and bravery to do the job,” Crowe continues. “It’s a very dark pursuit – you’re dealing a lot with people who are suffering deeply. Most of them needed psychological help – and he referred about 98 percent of his cases to medical professionals. He believed that very few cases were actually demonic possessions. But this meant that when he did come across something that was inexplicable, he was able to recognize it.”
The priest conducted these rituals with the tools of his trade: crucifixes, holy water and consecrated oil, a book of prayers, his purple scarf, which he would wrap around the neck of the afflicted person.
Despite such dark occurrences, Amorth remained light-hearted. He began his rituals by literally thumbing his nose at the devil. He’d tell jokes: “You know why the devil flees when he sees me? Because I’m uglier than he is!” The priest’s explanation, according to Crowe, is that “the devil doesn’t like jokes.”
Father Gabriele Amorth died in 2016 at the age of 91, prompting national mourning in Italy. The priest’s legend lives on, says Doug Belgrad. “Father Amorth was an iconoclast, an independent thinker and a brave soul, who spent his entire life trying to help people who are afflicted.”
The Pope’s Exorcist did mark a first for Crowe: he has never led a horror film.
And for good reason. “It was just something I hadn’t done – a genre I’ve never really touched at all. To be quite frank, I don’t really like scary movies. They put me off my sleep,” he says. “I’m incredibly superstitious. Moving in circles like this where you’re examining situations that the characters face… It’s not necessarily a comfortable place for me. Certainly, there were a lot of unusual things happening around us, but you keep your balance and see them as coincidence, otherwise you’re going to drive yourself a little bit insane.”
Crowe dove into research, amassing all the material he could about Amorth in order to understand the priest’s ministry and what made him tick. He travelled to Rome, where he spent a week meeting people from the Vatican who knew the pope’s exorcist. For all of the rumors of the secretive Church, he says, “I have to say that the Church was very open. We were given some extreme privileges by those in charge at the Vatican.”
Avery says that on that trip to Rome, he and Crowe saw firsthand how fondly Father Amorth is remembered, admired, and loved. “I feel that he wanted to honor that,” says the director. Of course, the film is not a documentary, and some elements would have poetic license, but within that, “he never went against his real character. It remained grounded and real. That’s why I feel his performance is so wonderful; because he was able to embody the spirit of Father Amorth.”
In his research, Crowe uncovered a man who could make a perfect lead for a mystery thriller – the ultimate insider with the trust of one of the oldest and most powerful organizations on the planet… but also a person of strong convictions and an unflinching thirst for the truth. Crowe says that Amorth’s colleagues and friends from the Vatican told him that the exorcist “never had any disagreements with anybody and always followed the line of the church,” while at the same time, the actor notes, “Father Amorth said some very controversial things in his time. He made some very strong statements, at various points in time, about his beliefs – which weren’t always 100% in line with the Church.”
“He had a certain, particular irreverent take on things that I tried to bring into the film,” Crowe continues. “He’s an individual, not a cookie cutter man of the cloth. He rides a Lambretta motor scooter!”
Julius Avery (Director) is an Australian filmmaker whose early work includes nominations for the prestigious Palme d’Or and winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his short films Jerrycan and Yardbird. His first feature length film Son of a Gun, which he wrote and directed, starred Ewan McGregor and Academy Award® winner Alicia Vikander ,and was nominated for Best Film at the London Film Festival. He went on to direct Overlord for Paramount Pictures, which Bad Robot/JJ Abrams produced. In 2021, he directed Samaritan for MGM starring Sylvester Stallone.
Formerly VP of Production at 20th Century Fox and VP of Development at New Line Cinema, Jeff Katz (Producer / Screen Story) is widely noted as the driving force in casting Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool. As an executive, he’s worked on such movies as Freddy Vs. Jason, Snakes on a Plane, Shoot ‘Em Up, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class, and The A-Team. He has been named one of Variety’s 10 Producers to Watch and a member of The Hollywood Reporter’s 35 Under 35. He started his career as a teenage talk host for WDFN radio in Detroit – a role he’d memorably reprise many years later for ESPN in Los Angeles – followed by a stint with Ted Turner’s WCW wrestling promotion. His movie pitch for “Freddy Vs. Jason Vs. Ash” became a miniseries – followed by a sequel series – for DC/Wildstorm and Dynamite Entertainment. His writing run on DC Comics “Booster Gold” has been named as one of the inspirations for DC and WB’s new “Gods & Monsters” reboot of the DC Comics movie and television universe under James Gunn and an adaptation is in development at HBO.
Michael Petroni (Screenplay) is known for his work on Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader for Fox, which opened at #1 domestically and grossed over $400 million worldwide, and The Rite for New Line, starring Anthony Hopkins, which also opened #1 and grossed over $100 million, as well as the critically acclaimed The Book Thief. In television, Petroni was the creator and executive producer of Netflix’s “Messiah.”
Evan Spiliotopoulos (Screenplay) made his screenwriting studio debut in 2001 with Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book 2, the sequel to the animated classic featuring the voices of John Goodman as Baloo, Haley Joel Osment as Mowgli and Phil Collins as Lucky. The film grossed over a hundred and eighty million dollars. His relationship with Disney continued with 2003’s The Three Musketeers, the first feature length project in history to star Mickey, Donald, and Goofy; Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, featuring the voice of two-time Academy Award® nominee Brenda Blethyn; The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning, starring two-time Academy Award® winner Sally Field; and Tinker Bell & The Lost Treasure starring Mae Whitman, Jane Horrocks and Academy Award® winner Anjelica Houston. After contributing to Universal’s Snow White and the Huntsman, Spiliotopoulos was hired by MGM to write the 2014 star-studded epic Hercules, starring Dwayne Johnson. In 2016, Spiliotopoulos returned to the world of Snow White by penning The Huntsman: Winter’s War, with Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron returning and joined by Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain. 2017 saw the record-breaking release of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens and co-written by Spiliotopoulos. The film grossed over 1.2 billion worldwide. In 2019 Spiliotopoulos co-wrote the story for Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels reboot. 2021 saw the release of Spiliotopoulos’ directorial debut The Unholy. Based on James Herbert’s novel “Shrine” and produced by Sam Raimi, the film was an international box office success for Sony/Screen Gems. Also in 2021, Spiliotopoulos co-wrote Snake Eyes for Paramount, the origin story of GI Joe’s legendary silent ninja. Spiliotopoulos was born in Athens, Greece and lives in Los Angeles.
Chester Hastings & R. Dean McCreary (Screen Story) have been a screenwriting team for over 20 years. In addition to selling several original screenplays, they have adapted works of fiction and non-fiction with a strong emphasis on historically based stories. They have worked with Imagine, Paramount, Sony Pictures, and other companies on numerous feature film projects including The Meg, The Rogue, You’re My Angel, All the Tea in China, Four Days in Naples, The Loch, Dominion, and their sentimental favorite Slide Away, a biopic about the life and death of INXS front man Michael Hutchence.
McCreary’s own feature script Rode to Ruin is currently in production with Revelations Entertainment starring Samuel L. Jackson and Morgan Freeman, and Hastings’ original screenplay The Raft of the Medusa has attached Roland Joffe to direct.
Both McCreary and Hastings come from the San Francisco Bay Area. Hastings was a classically trained chef prior to film, having lived and cooked throughout Italy and London, where he worked for musician Nick Cave. He is also the author of a James Beard nominated cookbook and currently lives in Los Angeles.
McCreary is an Air Force veteran, holds a MFA in Fine Art and is a former Fine Arts instructor. He has worked extensively in film and television production, most recently as Director of Visual Development for Revelations Entertainment. He lives and writes from Asheville, NC.