I’m dividing this into two parts. The first half is a spoiler-free review of The Vatican Tapes. The second half is very spoiler-heavy, including the ending, so that I can go more into depth about my thoughts on this movie. I’ll mark the end of the spoiler-free section clearly.
The Vatican Tapes, the newest entry in a long line of possession stories, was something of a roller coaster. It started off fairly standard and bland as far as these movies go, then seemed for a while like it was actually going to veer into some pretty interesting and original territory, then sadly veered right back towards bland.
There’s very little time given to help the audience invest in Angela, the possession victim, and her family. In fact, much more time is given to her father and boyfriend sniping pointlessly at each other, both of whom start to get very annoying in short order.
Michael Peña as Father Lozano was set up as a very interesting character–a military chaplain who did several tours in the Middle East before he’d “seen enough” and became a civilian priest–who was sadly relegated to passive witness and exposition-deliverer after his first few scenes.
Most of the movie was given over to all the standard tropes that pop up in possession and found footage horror: birds that hurl themselves into windows near the possessed person, shaky camera movement, eerily lit hallways, a few scenes in a mental institution where possession victim insists she’s not crazy and that something she doesn’t understand is happening to her, and some creative violence that gets effectively hamstringed by a PG-13 rating.
I’ll give the ending credit for being somewhat surprising, but not especially satisfying.
This concludes the spoiler-free portion of the review.
Major spoilers follow.
I spent a lot of time during this movie thinking about the evolving perception of religion in general and the Catholic church in particular in the eyes of society between The Exorcist and today. Full disclosure, I’m an atheist from a Catholic family.
For all its flaws, I think this movie could have been redeemed if the director took a little time to address the fact that the public’s trust in religious authority figures has taken a substantial hit over the past generation or two. The pedophilia scandals, the Church’s opposition to changing social norms, it’s reputation for austere rigidity.
I’m not religious, but I would have liked for this film to make me care about and be invested in the priests; I wanted to feel their love for this family torn by evil, and to see them do so under the belief that while bad things may have been done by some of the clergy, there were still those who felt called to the cloth because they feel like it’s where they can do good for man kind.
We got a brief taste of that warmth from Father Lozano in the very beginning. Yet the more the movie dragged on, the more he seemed to be going through the motions, delivering rote dialog about how Angela was possessed and needed an exorcism. He became defined by costume rather than character.
The movie became all about the need for righteous men to crusade against the devil by trying to destroy a girl “for the greater good” in God’s name. The way it played out evoked not the sense of devout men trying to see a lost lamb through darkness so that she might step into the light on the other side, but rather the ominous sort of fervor responsible for the Inquisition and witch trials.
There was a point just before the climax when this film truly seemed like the almost baffling lack of warmth and faith from the clergy was going to be revealed as part of a big set up; I was sure it was all leading to something good. The kind Father Lozano seemed poised to stop following orders and confront the grim-visaged, almost cruel Cardinal Bruun about how love and faith in God must surely be better tools against the Devil than anger and the torture of the poor girl that was his unfortunate vessel.
There was even an exchange between them where Cardinal Bruun told him not to say the usual prayer over the Eucharist before it was offered to her, with the sinister reasoning that “sometimes God is best served by moving away from him.” Then followed some awkward and borderline suggestive scenes where Angela, scantily clad in a thin white gown, was ordered to kneel before him so he could shove the Eucharist in her mouth and admonish her to swallow. More menacing orders for her to lay on the bed before him. It almost seemed to be deliberately trying to invoke vague, back-of-the-mind whispers about priests and inappropriate sexual conduct.
Surely it was all building to a man who represented the best religion has to offer going up against a man who represented the worst authoritarian aspects of religion, and coming out victorious?
But it didn’t happen like that. Cardinal Bruun strangled her to death with a rosary while holding a knife to her throat as Father Lozano, her father, and her boyfriend watched. She suddenly reappeared in a new body, was revealed to be the anti-Christ, killed them all except Father Lozano, and escaped to set in motion her reign of terror. Father Lozano replaced Cardinal Bruun among the Vatican tape curators.
The Vatican Tapes chose shock value and a twist ending over saying something interesting, and I feel it was much poorer for that.