Monday, May 18, 2009

"Angels and Demons"

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), professor of symbology at Harvard University was swimming his customary laps in the University pool, when he emerges from the pool face to face with a bleary-eyed stranger Claudio Vincenzi (David Pasquesi) carrying what he immediately recognizes as a Vatican briefcase. Now why would the Vatican want to run after Langdon, who, according to the film “The Da Vinci Code” uncovered the greatest hoax of all time; the fact that Jesus Christ had a child with Mary Magdalene? Because they are desperate, and even though they have repeatedly denied him access to the Vatican Archives, this time the Vatican security is seeking his expertise in an emergency, which is above their capacity. This improbable opening scene immediately weakens the credibility of the plot of the film. In the novel, Langdon is summoned by scientists to CERN a huge laboratory complex in Geneva, to solve a murder of a priest-scientist, with the word “Illuminati” branded on his chest. Landon has written a book about this secret society of artists and scientists formed by Galileo in response to persecution by the Church. It seems that the ancient Illuminati have re-emerged for revenge, stealing anti-matter, a highly combustible secret discovery. Landon finds himself swept along with CERN physicist Vittoria Veetra (Ayelet Zuhrer) to Rome; to solve the Illuminati plot. It seems that, after the Pope’s death, the Illuminati are poised to strike at a leaderless Church to deal Rome a mortal blow. In the headquarters of the Swiss Guard, the Vatican Security Police, Langdon meets scientist Vittoria Veetra partner of the slain CERN scientist who is there to diffuse the ticking time bomb of undetectable, highly explosive anti-matter, before it is detonated at midnight. Langdon and Veetra’s missions merge as they discover that the Illuminati are behind both the threat to murder four cardinals in four different Churches in Rome, and the threat to release the power of the antimatter to incinerate the entire Vatican in an explosion of light.

The strange opening scene; Vatican comes to non-believing scientist for assistance, serves two ends; sparing the audience the painstakingly slow scenes in CERN, and lionizing Professor Langdon as a forgiving soul who overlooks the anti-knowledge bent of the Vatican by impetuously agreeing to save the Church. The cardinals are not portrayed as enemies; they are merely simple decrepit old men who cling to traditions for their own sake. The head of the Swiss Guard Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard) is a bull of a man with an instant distrust of Langdon and Veetra. Nowhere is there a profound display of religious belief, until we meet the young Irish Camerlengo Fr. Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), who was raised by the deceased pope, and bears the responsibility of holding the reigns of power until a new pontiff is elected. His calmness under pressure makes him a natural leader, despite his youth, but his authority is challenged by Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) Head of the College of Cardinals, and the Commander Richter. Fr Patrick overrides their objections and allows Langdon and Veetra access to the Vatican Archives to research Galileo’s files. Langdon’s current book involves the Church’s persecution of Galileo, and his founding of the Illuminati. It is in his pamphlet that clues to the first of four churches where the cardinals will be murdered within an hour are to be found. Galileo spread this pamphlet throughout Europe to invite scientists and artists to his secret meeting place within Rome itself. Will the team of intellectual unbelievers be able to lead the Catholic law enforcement team to the murder sites in time to save the Preferitti, or the four cardinals most favored to be elected pope?
Stunning visuals of Roman art and architecture are mixed seamlessly with remarkable computer generated scenes inside the Vatican (no commercial films are permitted in the interior of Rome’s churches) The score by Hans Zimmer ranges from traditional Gregorian chant to stirring modern choral crescendos, which add eternal significance to the film’s National Treasure style action. Director Ron Howard was right about one thing; this film portrays the Catholic Churches of Rome and the ancient splendor of the ceremony of the conclave with power and majesty, all built upon the bones of St Peter himself. Yet it is an empty grandeur, resting its foot on the neck of true knowledge, and without belief in Jesus Christ. In fact, Christ’s name is conspicuously absent in the film.
Ron Howard’s direction and the beauty of Roman churches may take the edge off Dan Brown’s cheap shots at the Church; however, some of them manage to puncture what could be a seamlessly spellbinding film with the adolescent vulgarity of spitballs in church. How is it essential to the plot for Langdon to mention a Pope Pius who allegedly ‘castrated’ statues to make them more modest? Bill Donohue said in his review, “Pope Pius IX is said to have bludgeoned the genitalia of male statues, a complete fabrication. In reality Pius IX lavishly funded the arts.” Then there is the Church’s alleged mistreatment of artists Rafael and Bernini whose genius decorate much of the Vatican, who Brown claims, became Illuminati, will rankle Catholic filmgoers. One does not have to be a Renaissance historian to recognize an illogical premise.
Further plot twists confirm the film’s erroneous position that the Church has always been anti-science, including a completely erroneous clash between ‘promoters of compassion and life’ and Catholics who oppose stem cells which takes place in front of St Peter’s Square. The Catholic protestors carry signs saying, “Stem cell research is murder,” a misstatement of Church position. The Church promotes adult stem cell research, which is responsible for 73 cures, while opposing embryonic research, which has produced nothing but cancer. MIT geneticist Dr James Sherley said that Europeans no longer consider embryonic research worthwhile, which further reduces the plausibility of a such a clash of protesters at the Vatican.
This is why Catholic criticize “Angels’ and Demons”: they sense an agenda behind an adventure film, their Church singled out again by Dan Brown who plays fast and loose with history to turn a profit. Thus, Dr Donohue requested a disclaimer at the start of the film stating that the film is fictional. There was such a disclaimer, way at the extreme end of the credits. I read it while the ushers were sweeping up the popcorn.
One artistic flaw of the film was casting Tom Hanks, as Professor Landon, the stuffed shirt who lectures Vittoria Veetra relentlessly while peering timidly into moldy tombs and awkwardly chasing gun-toting murderers a la Indiana Jones. Sorry, but Hanks lacks Harrison Fords’ masculine gusto. Indy was never more at home than when facing overwhelming odds in a dusty tomb, Langdon just looks and sounds ridiculous.
If you want a scenic, thrilling adventure film with less historical accuracy than the Indiana Jones and National Treasure films, and can stomach the cheap shots at Catholicism, “Angels and Demons” is worth a view. It contains graphic torture, murder, and morbid corpse views, gunfights and frightening explosions. No sexual content beyond Victoria’s low necklines and the reference to castration of statues. Occasional swearing in various languages. This picture is for adults only.
For further discussion of the misrepresentation of facts about the Catholic Church, see my comments "Just the Facts, Please" on Catholic Online.

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