By Kurt Jensen
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — A low-budget exorcism flick whose lurid title attempts to mask bad plotting and wooden characters. Yuck, right?
Well, in the case of "The Vatican Tapes" (Lionsgate), things could, conceivably, have been worse.
With, perhaps, little funds for gore, director Mark Neveldine focuses instead on the Satan-subduing rite — always a popular spectacle with moviegoers — that takes up his film’s final 15 minutes.
In most cases, the familiar big-screen sight of men in clerical collars battling demons — or in this instance, the Antichrist himself — swerves at least into broad caricature. At worst, the outworn trope degenerates into sacrilegious and grotesque parodies of Catholic religious practice.
"The Vatican Tapes" avoids most of this and is somewhat reverent, with both a relatively straightforward ritual and a taciturn priest, Father Lozano (Michael Pena). He’s a tough guy, a tattooed former military chaplain who maintains his dignity throughout — although he has little to say, either on his own behalf or that of the faith.
Appropriate histrionics come from the writhing object of his ministrations, Angela (Olivia Taylor Dudley). They’re reinforced by sepulchral Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson). Having been possessed himself when he was 12, His Eminence, it seems, is taking Angela’s case personally.
The "tapes" of the title refer to screenwriters Christopher Borrelli and Michael C. Martin’s conceit that, since the advent of motion pictures, circa 1900, the Vatican has maintained a secret visual archive — along with more traditional print files — on the subject of exorcism.
This establishment, which looks like a mildewed Costco with stone walls, is chockablock with scraps of film and videotape as well as box after box of written material chronicling the church’s unending fight with Satan.
As though to invoke an imprimatur by association, the picture opens with a montage that includes archival news footage of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, with images of the current pontiff thrown in for good measure.
Movies with tight monetary constraints often have to resort to this sort of thing to achieve that "ripped from the headlines" feel. Here, the filmmakers are merely digging for gothic gravitas, an effect that would probably come across more successfully were Pope Francis not, characteristically, beaming with good humor.
The plot — more of a plod, really — has the forces of the netherworld somehow grabbing hold of Angela during a hospital visit after she slices her hand while cutting a birthday cake.
Not only does this sulfurous intervention further spoil the party, it confounds Angela’s gruff, devout father, Roger (Dougray Scott), her perpetually confused boyfriend, Pete (John Patrick Amedori), and Dr. Richards (Kathleen Robertson), the analyst assigned to treat what appears at first to be mere psychosis. (Freud before faith is always the way in these matters.)
Possession gives Angela telekinesis and, for a time, the ability to compel others to commit murderous deeds. Oh, and she’s constantly attended by a raven.
Unlike the one bugging Edgar Allan Poe all those years ago, this bird keeps mum, which, however, doesn’t stop yet another clergyman mixed up in the business, Vicar Imani (Djimon Hounsou), from labeling it "the Devil’s messenger."
Quoth the critic: "Nothing more."
The film contains some mildly gory violence, occult themes, a sloppy portrayal of Catholicism and fleeting uses of profanity and of rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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