Angels & Demons is probably the only movie ever made about a papal conclave that includes a tracking shot starting inside the conclave stove, where we see the burning ballots from the final papal vote, then following the white smoke rising up through the chimney pipe, and finally out and over the roof of the Sistine Chapel.
It’s definitely the only movie about a conclave held while Vatican City is threatened with imminent annihilation from an antimatter bomb, and four kidnapped papabile — sorry, preferiti — face gruesome executions, ostensibly from an ancient enemy of the Church calling itself the Illuminati. I hate it when that happens.
At least the Church know who to call to try to sort things out: Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). Why Langdon? “Your recent involvement in certain … shall we say … mysteries,” is the vague, uncomfortable explanation of the Vatican official who finds him in the Harvard pool where he swims fifty laps a day.
Langdon looks skeptical. “I wasn’t aware that episode had endeared me to church authorities,” he replies. No kidding. That’s why, instead of visiting the real St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, Langdon has to make do with a scale replica built in LA. In other scenes, Vatican interiors are represented by the Royal Palace of Caserta, which also doubled as the Palace of Naboo in The Phantom Menace. I wonder if Vatican camerlengo (papal chamberlain) Ewan MacGregor wanted to pull out his lightsaber.
The “episode” Langdon refers to is that business in The Da Vinci Code, and the “mysteries” in question are the revelations that Jesus Christ was not divine, though he married into divinity, or something, and that from this union descended a powerful character in the Matrix sequels, and ultimately, wouldn’t you know it, Langdon’s love interest in The Da Vinci Code.
And here the heroines of the Indiana Jones sequels thought that Marion Ravenwood was a tough act to follow. No wonder director Ron Howard and screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman don’t bother to follow the novel in establishing that the beautiful “bio entanglement physicist” Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) is actually the daughter of the CERN priest–physicist who succeeds in creating a big wad of antimatter just before being murdered. So what? Langdon’s last squeeze was descended from that guy who raised the dead and died on a Roman cross.
Well, that’s what happens when you tell the story out of order. Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code as a sequel to his novel Angels & Demons, but the movies reverse the order — so we now have Langdon running around Rome trying to save high-ranking officials of what he already knows is a false religion that’s been murdering people for centuries to cover up the lie on which the institution is founded.
Perhaps aware that more incentive is needed, the filmmakers dovetail the book’s parallel search plots, suggesting that the Path of Illumination marking the locations where the kidnapped cardinals will be murdered could ultimately lead to the antimatter bomb threatening to destroy Vatican City.
So Langdon’s scavenger hunt across Rome isn’t just about trying to save four celibate geezers from being brutally murdered by the Illuminati — it could also wind up saving the priceless treasures of Vatican City.
Can we slow down a moment to get our bearings? Sorry, no time. The movie never stops to catch its breath, and neither can we. Besides, either you already know what I’m talking about, or you already know that you don’t need to know, right?
The bottom line, for those who care about such things, is this. Once you’ve established that your story is set in a world in which Jesus Christ is explicitly not God, and the Catholic religion is a known fraud perpetuated by murder and cover-ups, it sort of sucks the wind out of whatever story it was you were going to tell us next. Langdon could be ironing his chinos and helping little old ladies across the street, and it would still be set in that world, and those who care about such things will find it hard to bracket that and just go along with the thrill machine.
Which, I think, is what the filmmakers would like you to do. Reviewing The Da Vinci Code three years ago, I wrote that if that movie isn’t anti-Catholic, no movie is. Angels & Demons is not that movie. Partly that’s because the novel is less virulent than The Da Vinci Code, which Brown was still ramping up to. Also, where The Da Vinci Code movie followed the book as reverentially as possible, the new movie not only seeks to jettison as much baggage as possible, it even makes a few additions and changes expressing a more sympathetic disposition toward the Church.
A scurrilous bit of back story involving the late pope, a nun and in vitro fertilization has been dropped. A few positive lines have been added to the screenplay, such as this one that Swiss Guard Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgård) flings at Langdon: “My church feeds the hungry. My church comforts the sick and dying. What does your church do? That’s right — you don’t have one.”
The most important positive changes involve key plot points toward the end of the story. For those who know the story — warning: major book spoilers follow — I can say that the novel recounts the gruesome murders of several cardinals (each of whom in turn Langdon tries and fails to rescue), followed by the radical subversion of the conclave process by one of the story’s villains. Without revealing too much more, I can say that the story the movie tells is somewhat different from this, and that, to that extent, the movie substantially — though not completely — ameliorates the anti-Catholic sensibilities of the book.
On the other hand, the omission of the scurrilous bit of papal back story results in a different motive for the story’s first murder — and the motive that is supplied directly reinforces the anti-Catholic master myth driving Angels & Demons, that of the Church’s murderous war against science. Yes, it turns out that churchmen are still willing to murder — even the Church’s own highest leaders — to protect dogma from the encroachment of science. We have met the enemy and he is still us.
Although the subject matter is less directly subversive to Christianity than The Da Vinci Code, the setting in Rome and Vatican City, during the convocation of a papal conclave, amounts to a bid to absorb the capital of Western Christendom and of the Catholic Church into the Dan Brown worldview. The general aura of creepiness that enveloped Opus Dei and the Catholic iconography of The Da Vinci Code now enshrouds Vatican City and the churches of Rome.
Although some commentators, even the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, have optimistically suggested that this time “the church is on the side of the good guys,” it’s hard to find any “good guys” in Roman collars or red hats. The four kidnapped preferiti are victims, of course, and one even manages to say to their kidnapper “May God forgive you” before he knows just how bad it’s going to get. By and large, though, the movie’s churchmen and other Church representatives, including Richter, are like their counterparts in the book: inflexible, obstructive, close-mouthed and unreceptive, with the exception of the charismatic camerlengo, who turns out to have his own issues.
When, in the end, old Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) smiles gently at Langdon and says, “Thank God he sent you to save us,” it’s hard to forget that this is the same man who refused to evacuate St. Peter’s Square during the antimatter bomb threat because he wanted to keep it a secret, and “we are all bound for heaven eventually.” Yikes. Langdon may wind up saving the Church, but does Angels & Demons offer any hint of a church worth saving? If not, why should we care?
Now consider the movie’s assassin. The assassin in the novel is an Arab Muslim — not devout, but contemptuous of Christianity, with a deep respect for the anti-Church Illuminati; a sadistic, misogynistic monster who enjoys torturing and killing the cardinals and kidnaps Vittoria, whom he lasciviously looks forward to raping and murdering.
This plotline, along with most of Vittoria’s character arc, is (mercifully in this case) cut from the film, which has no time either for damsels in distress or canoodling between the hero and heroine. At the same time, the anti-Muslim stereotype of the assassin has been oh so sensitively replaced with a non-religious European professional (Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas) whose acts are strictly business, not personal. Not only does this kinder, gentler assassin actually let Langdon and Vittoria go because he wasn’t paid to kill them, he even cautions them against the really dangerous characters: “Be careful. These are men of God,” he says.
Underscoring his warning — spoiler alert — the assassin’s own end in the movie differs strikingly from the book. Where the novel assassin receives his just desserts in an action scene involving Langdon and Vittoria, the movie assassin is double-crossed by men of God. That’s a trick that even Brown’s duplicitous churchmen missed.
Incidentally, Cardinal Strauss’s secrecy about the antimatter bomb is par for the course; the Vatican press office deals with the story’s disturbing events entirely through lies and cover-ups. That may be somewhat understandable under the circumstances, and more an exaggeration than a church-bashing distortion, but either way it’s melancholy to see Angels & Demons’ camerlengo futilely urging combating secrecy with openness. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
When Sony Pictures, the production company behind the hit film The Da Vinci Code and the new sequel Angels & Demons, reached out to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN management in Geneva saw a high-profile teachable moment for science.
In a Q&A billed as an “interview” on his own website, Brown writes (in a comment recently highlighted by Carl Olson in This Rock), “My goal is always to make the character’s [sic] and plot be so engaging that readers don’t realize how much they are learning along the way.” Or how much misinformation they’re absorbing.
Is The Da Vinci Code anti-Catholic? Well, if it isn’t, then we must simply conclude that no such thing as anti-Catholicism exists, or at least that no anti-Catholic movie has ever been made.
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The opening paragraphs of your review for Angels & Demons is one of the funniest and most entertaining things I’ve seen on this site. I’m slogging my way through the book at the moment (armed with a pen so I can jot snarky comments in the margins: it’s about the only way I can stand it), and your gleeful, movie reference-laden jabs were spot on! As a Matrix geek, I had to laugh out loud at this paragraph in particular:The “episode” Langdon refers to is that business in The Da Vinci Code, and the “mysteries” in question are the revelations that Jesus Christ was not divine, though he married into divinity, or something, and that from this union descended a powerful character in the Matrix sequels, and ultimately, wouldn’t you know it Langdon’s love interest in The Da Vinci Code.
Great minds, they do think alike: I’d had a very similar line of thought when I was laboring through Da Vinci Code. I think I even cracked, to friends in the know, a joke along the lines of “The movie would have been better if they’d had a cameo by Lambert Wilson” (ie. the French actor who played the Merovingian in the Matrix movies). Keep up the good work and keep bringing on the laughter in the face of movies that look down their noses at religion. As St. Thomas More said, “The Devil cannot stand to be mocked.”
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you only insult angels and demons because in portrays the catholic church as a evil organization willing to kill people for “faith.”
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.