Something has gotten ahold of Angela (Olivia Dudley) in The Vatican Tapes, but director Mark Neveldine never gives a face to it, sans an early scene where a pair of priests notice the faint outline of a figure superimposed over their troubled patient while sifting through one of the titular recordings. That lack of visible evidence makes The Vatican Tapes unique as a possession narrative, since many similar films often exist as a vessel to bring demonic forces to life. Although the film resembles The Exorcist, especially with an exorcism-focused third act, it’s more aligned with Rosemary’s Baby in its treatment of female psychosis as a result of the male bravado, embodied by both Angela’s boyfriend (John Patrick Amedori) and father (Dougray Scott) as they bicker for her allegiances, still assigning blame to one another as they treat her ailing body.
“The world is changing,” says Vicar Imani (Djimon Hounsou) in an early scene, and the film addresses those changes through its own textures, as when Angela logs onto a website called Blogzine.com. Neveldine thrives on making blank gestures to the state of technological overdrive; forms of online diary are so commonplace, the films says, that even giving one a name becomes fruitless, because it’s merely a functional equivalent of any other name that could be given. Notions of flat social engagement are substantiated by a surprise birthday party for Angela, in which her father boats that “daddy always gets the first piece [of cake],” though it’s made with such commanding physical assertion as to become immediately incestuous. “It’s tradition, right Daddy?” Angela asks, but it’s yet another suggestive question the film poses without a direct response.
As characters attempt to figure out what or who is responsible for Angela’s gradual transformation into a chaos-inducing, hypnotist demon, Neveldine’s filmmaking style becomes more kinetic, providing the tangible evidence missing on the possession front. In the film’s most caustic scene, a riot breaks out in a focus group, sending the camera swirling, tracking, and sprinting throughout the mise-en-scène and standing in for outwardly grotesque imagery. Nevertheless, The Vatican Tapes is hampered by too few instances of daring or dynamic expressions of its gradually forming premise that personal technologies have replaced the need for religious conviction.
That’s why no demon manifests: No one within the film has the capacity to imagine such a multi-formed presence in a wholly digitized environment. Neveldine has some fun with these ideas, as when a door closes and an iPhone opens, with the latter’s interface doubling as the on-screen orientation to unfolding events. The shift in specifics from Alexander Graham Bell’s famous bit of optimism is telling, because it spells out an anxiety regarding contemporary existence, where witticisms or mythologies that have served as a foundational component of Western intellectual thought no longer have lasting purchase. Even so, these points of comparison are slackened by dialogue scenes that Neveldine struggles to stage or craft for perceptible meaning beyond rote exposition. His camera is more at home in motion and charting kinetic terrain; thus, the intrigue of The Vatican Tapes resides in its presentation of Angela’s interior yearnings for mobility and an independent voice, which are choked-out by exterior factors.
Neveldine’s casting choices prove a worthy supplement, especially Michael Peña as an empathetic Father and the only person in the film seemingly interested in Angela’s well-being. Thus, once the fire-and-brimstone dust clears, it’s no surprise that Peña’s priest remains one of the last men standing. Even more enticing is how Angela’s wrath has eradicated the remaining figures of white, patriarchal dominance that were ruling her daily life. But The Vatican Tapes doesn’t seem to know what to make of all this; its opting for a cliffhanger ending cheapens what has preceded it, but does offer genre-based promise should there be a follow-up. Like technological innovation itself, the film seems overwhelmed by the reach of all its techo-cultural parts. It lends further resonance to a moment when a priest asks a young character, gesturing to a camera: “Can you plug this in?” The answer, it seems, can no longer be a simple yes or no.