Two New Films About the Devil — ‘Nefarious’ and ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’

I’m giving ‘Nefarious’ and ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ qualified recommendations for adults in the name of ‘proper scaring.’

Sean Patrick Flanery (l) stars in ‘Nefarious’ and Russell Crowe plays Father Gabriele Amorth in ‘The Pope’s Exorcist.’
Sean Patrick Flanery (l) stars in ‘Nefarious’ and Russell Crowe plays Father Gabriele Amorth in ‘The Pope’s Exorcist.’ (photo: Soli Dei Gloria Releasing / Sony Pictures Entertainment)

In Sheldon Vanauken’s wonderful spiritual memoir, A Severe Mercy, there is a moment when the committed pagan character, Davy, has her unbelief shattered. She has survived a sexual assault, and she notes that while looking into the eyes of her attacker she had seen demonic delight in her terror. Experiencing that level of evil shatters her sense of self-sufficiency and opens her to the good God who must be holding the voracious evil in check.

Seems to me that through a Christian lens, this is the main justification for entertainment projects that feature the devil. Placing ourselves in the proximity of Satan, even just in a movie, is always going to be fraught. There is the potential glamorization of evil. There is the impropriety of reveling in human terror and suffering as a kind of spectacle to be consumed with popcorn and a Coke. The devil would rather none of us believe he exists. But once someone comes to the certainty that Satan is real and out there, “like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour,” then the devil’s approach can become trying to scare us into panic. It is a rush for Lucifer when we demonstrate we are more afraid of his power than of God’s.

Still, there is a role for narratives that move us into a healthy awareness of the existence of Satan, and more particularly how he acts upon us. As Flannery O’Connor noted in the last letter she wrote, there are times when we need to be “properly scared.”

There are two new films about the devil in theaters this week, which both carry an R rating from the MPAA. I’m giving the films Nefarious and The Pope’s Exorcist qualified recommendations for adults in the name of “proper scaring.”

Nefarious is a very low-budget project that is produced, written and directed by the two men who performed all three roles in the film Unplanned, and wrote the script for God’s Not Dead. Their movies lean toward heavy-handed defenses of Christian thought which invariably delight Christians who feel oppressed by the culture, and infuriate non-believers. 

This latest film pits cinema history’s most loquacious demon against a hapless, mumbling atheist. This stacked-deck disparity is the reason most of the secular critics are hating the film. (See the 30% rating on The set piece is a sparely produced death row where a serial killer, Edward, ably played by a gurgling Sean Patrick Flanery, is about to be put to death, unless he can convince the court-appointed psychiatrist, not so ably played by Jordan Belfi, that he, Edward, is insane. What unfolds over the next 90 minutes is less of a story and more of a regurgitation by the clearly possessed Edward of fairly accurate Christian demonology and, eventually, moral theology. The interview wants to be Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, but it lacks the brilliant subtext and penetrating prose that makes that piece truly grand. Some big Christian fans of Nefarious are calling it “a modern-day Screwtape Letters,” even as it lacks the menacing wit and spiritual sophistication that defines that work. 

The devil in Nefarious is not at all the Father of Lies but rather a resentful interlocutor of reality. That troubled me a bit from a theological standpoint. Shouldn’t the devil be a liar in our literary depictions of him? 

The film also surprisingly and, probably unintentionally, disparages Catholicism, in a brief scene in which a priest comes in and doesn’t recognize the devil, presumably from disbelief. That, plus an extended cameo by a weirdly-costumed Glenn Beck, is certainly one way to please the Evangelical audience that delighted in God’s Not Dead

Nefarious avoids all the conventions of the horror genre, except for a gratuitous, brutally graphic execution scene — sensitive viewers be warned. Overall, it is a competently-made movie, which is always a relief in the generally uneven faith-based space. The film is too didactic to be terrifying, but it does offer a compelling case for the existence of intelligent, personal evil, trying to orchestrate most of the movements of our sorry post-modern society. It may offer people who agree with its premises a heightened awareness that the devil is out there and has it in for us.

Note: The MPAA rated Nefarious R for for some disturbing violent content.

The second devil movie out there right now is the much more conventional horror tale, The Pope’s Exorcist. The film purports to be loosely based on the writings of Father Gabriel Amorth, who served as an exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, although the narrative here is first and foremost serving the scares and not the facts of any actual case. With that said, this film is actually very respectful of the Catholic faith, and absolutely leaves the viewer with the sense that the only remedy for serious demonic possession is in the patrimony of the Church. 

The highlight of The Pope’s Exorcist is the central performance by Oscar-winning actor, Russell Crowe. He gives Father Amorth a warmth and gentle humor that still covers a core of steely-eyed faith and cognition of evil. His character is full of humility and nobility and courage — which we don’t see every day on the screen in clerical garb.

The narrative is a contrived mishmash in which a clueless widowed American mother of two inherits a medieval abbey in southern Spain only to find her young son, Henry, possessed by the demon who calls the abbey home. There are smatterings of the Spanish Inquisition and hints of high Church intrigue, and lots of Latin and sacramentals. The devil afflicting Henry has super demon powers and Father Amorth nearly loses his soul in the struggle. At times the film feels like a valentine to The Exorcist, with people coughing up gross things, spewing crass language, crab-walking up walls and being hurled around like rag dolls. This movie knows what it is: a horror film first of all. If you like that kind of thing, then you will probably like this thing.

So, if you are a grown up, and if you are spiritually mature enough not to get swept up in fear of the devil from the movie, and if you can watch horror film conventions without scandal and harm, then I recommend The Pope’s Exorcist as a basically competent offering.

Note: The MPAA rated The Pope's Exorcist R for violent content, language, sexual references and some nudity.