By Peter Malone, MSH
11th May 2009
Just what everyone has been waiting for: a film of a Dan Brown novel!
However, with the report of a review in L’Osservatore Romano after the film’s premiere in Rome saying that the film was commercial and entertaining and that Ron Howard had made an effective thriller (although the review also suggested a mind game while watching the film, to pick the inaccuracies!), it means that a lot of the heat should have gone out of any controversy. SIGNIS Cinema Desk would certainly endorse the reviewer’s conclusion that the film is ‘two hours of harmless entertainment’ and not a danger to the church. Had there been no The Da Vinci Code novel, film or controversy, then Angels and Demons would have probably been reviewed as a blockbuster doomsday, murder mystery thriller with a Vatican setting (looking rather authentic), discussions about the church and science with the Catholic Church treated quite respectfully. (References to persecution of scientists in the 16th and 17th centuries were sometimes inquisitorial – and are documented; prison was not easy for Galileo.)
There are speculations about the secret society of scientists, The Illuminati, who seem to be a Masonic equivalent. Angels and Demons (2000) was written some years before The Da Vinci Code (2003) and is a better written book though it is an ‘airport novel’, a page-turner. As with many historical novels (and Shakespeare himself was not above creating ‘historical’ scenarios that were inventive rather than factual), the author takes imaginative license with characters, events, and hypotheses: what if…?
But Angels and Demons has a character that seems to do a 180 degree turn in character and behaviour which makes the psychological realism of the book rather absurd. In the film, there is less depth of explaining this character and so the revelation tends to be a cinema twist which, however preposterous, is somewhat more credible, at least in terms of the far-fetched plot itself.
While Ron Howard did not have permissions to film in the Vatican, the sets of the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s interiors, the Vatican Archives look quite convincing and were commented on favourably by the L’Osservatore Romano reviewer. The scenes of the CERNS reactor are very impressive.
The key point about Angels and Demons is its church subject: church and science, past conflicts, the present challenge, a feature of recent Vatican discussions about evolution and creationism, the meeting of science and religion rather than antagonism. Not a difficult subject when one thinks of Galileo and Pope John Paul’s apology in 2000. Which means that the central issues are not as threatening or offensive as the hypothesis of The Da Vinci Code with its relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and their descendants.
The day before the preview of Angels and Demons in London, channel 5 screened The Body which came and went several years ago without too much angst or even discussion. Antonio Banderas portrayed a Jesuit from Rome going to Jerusalem to examine bones discovered in what might have been Jesus’ tomb and which would threaten a traditional understanding of the resurrection. There are plenty of novels and films which raise such issues by way of interest and entertainment but are not put forward as theology.
The controversy about The Da Vinci Code, book and film, certainly got people going all around the world, given the number of books sold and the multi-millions of readers. The Opus Dei connection also contributed to some of the furore. However, this time, with only science and the church (and issues of anti-matter and its potential for mass destruction in the wrong hands) and the Vatican itself calling in Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) to solve the problems, the potential for argument is limited. As with the screenplay for The Da Vinci Code, lines have been inserted more favourable to the church. Langdon reminds the Vatican that, despite the previous controversy, they have called him in this time. There are respectful lines concerning faith and non-belief – and a final request to Langdon from Cardinal Strauss that he write gently about the church!
One of the issues facing the conclave in the film is the ‘Church in the Modern World’ vis-à-vis science, with the dialogue for the meeting of ideas of science and theology or extremist attitudes towards religion capitulating to science and so destroying the church – the point being that this kind of fanatic stance can become a cause, righteously crusading with violence against those who hold more moderate views – leading to what could be labelled ‘ecclesiastical terrorism’.
A key issue prior to the release of the film has been the raising of controversy about the film, sight unseen – a protest that undermines the protesters’ credibility. Any controversy and protest about a film is a challenge for the church to look at how it responds. The Vatican comments from Fr Federico Lombardi deflected some heat with offhand humour (that he would say something if the film-makers took out 1000 10-year subscriptions to L’Osservatore!). However, several Italian papers began making comments about Vatican officials possibly criticising the film some months earlier. This made headlines in the media that the Vatican would object or was objecting. And publicists must have been offering prayers of thanksgiving that these rumours were doing some of their job for them.
But, in the Catholic world, the main protest has come from William Donohue, president of the Catholic League in the United States. As he did with The Da Vinci Code and The Golden Compass, he issued lists of errors in the book and said that they were to insult the church. It was alleged that he had a Canadian priest contact, not wearing clerical dress, on the set of Angels and Demons who reported that director Ron Howard and members of the production were verbally anti-Catholic. On the basis of this, spurred by an Indian journalist who is linked with the Catholic League, processions of protest were held in India and Taiwan.
Many of the errors and alleged insults to the church in the Catholic League list are not in the film. Ron Howard’s publicist (or Howard himself) came up with some smart repartee that William Donohue must be a man of faith because ‘he believes without seeing’. And that Donohue and himself were in agreement – that Angels and Demons was fiction. There were some acrid comments reported from the producers about the Vatican prohibiting filming in the Vatican and parts of Rome but there were also many quotes from Tom Hanks and Ron Howard that the film was not anti-Catholic and that the Vatican would enjoy it (as has seemed to be the case from the review). The Donohue one-liner was that Howard was ‘delusional’
This kind of thing (which may not go much further because of the L’Osservatore favourable comments) indicates that there is a profound difference in responding to a film, or anything that is challenging, from an ‘education’ point of view which leads to dialogue rather than a ‘crusading’ point of view which leads to two-sided polemic with antagonists rather enjoying the experience of battle in crusade.
Dialogue can lead somewhere. Polemic leads nowhere but simply confirms antagonists in their positions and stances and introduces the hurling of invective which in no way mirrors the charity and peace of Christ.
The (good) news is that Dan Brown has completed another conspiracy novel, The Lost Code, due for publication and optioned for filming!
ANGELS AND DEMONS: A REVIEW
May to August in the northern hemisphere means spring and summer is a time for almost weekly release of blockbusters with huge budgets, action and effects and potential for high grosses at the box office. 2009 has seen Wolverine, Star Trek, followed by Angels and Demons, with Night at the Museum 2, Transformers 2 and Terminator Salvation in the offing.
Here is a doomsday plot, murder mystery, action thriller with a cast led by Tom Hanks as symbologist Robert Langdon and Ewan McGregor as the Vatican Camerlengo and an international cast portraying scientists, police, bishops and cardinals.
Angels and Demons, unlike the film of The Da Vinci Code, is fast-paced, the L’Osservatore Romano review referring to Ron Howard’s dynamic direction. It also used the word ‘commercial’ as well as noting that it was ‘harmless entertainment’ and not a danger to the Church. In fact, the film treats the church quite interestingly, scenes behind a conclave and inside the conclave, fine sets of the Sistine Chapel, the interiors of St Peter’s, Castel San Angelo, the Vatican Necropolis, the Swiss Guards centre, the Vatican archives and several churches with art by Bernini. The film won’t harm tourism to Rome or to the Vatican. Probably, the contrary.
The issue is science and religion. There are some very impressive scenes of CERN in Switzerland where the Big Bang was re-created in 2008. Dan Brown, writing years earlier, posited this explosion and the formation of anti-matter which is then used as a terrorist threat in Rome. Arguments are put forward about the church’s record in persecuting scientists in past centuries, especially Galileo (true) with some inquisitorial interrogations and tortures. The material about the Illuminati, the underground society of scientists has some foundation but was not as extensive as speculated on here – a kind of Masonic brotherhood of scientists. (They appeared in the first Lara Croft film without anybody taking to controversy.)
One of the issues facing the conclave in the film is the Church in the Modern World vis-à-vis science, with the dialogue for the meeting of ideas of science and theology or extremist attitudes towards religion capitulating to science and so destroying the church – the point being that this kind of fanatic stance can become a cause, righteously crusading with violence against those who hold more moderate views – leading to what could be labelled ‘ecclesiastical terrorism’.
Oh, the tale has so many plot-holes (with the action moving so fast you don’t quite have time to follow through on them) that they don’t bear thinking about – so, either one sits irritated at the inaccuracies about dates and historical figures and driven up the wall by the lack of coherence in the course of events or, as one does, offer a willing suspension of disbelief and enjoy the action for what it is, a lavishly-mounted, pot-boiling thriller. ______________________
Peter Malone, MSC, a London-based film critic, heads the cinema desk for SIGNIS, the international Catholic organization for communication. He is the award-winning author of many books on theology, scripture and film including the Lights, Camera, Faith series published by Pauline Books & Media, Boston