Richard Leonard
The absurdity of 'Angels & Demons'
Image

In "Angels & Demons,” Tom Hanks reprises his "Da Vinci Code” role as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, who once again finds that forces with ancient roots are willing to stop at nothing, even murder, to advance their goals. When Langdon discovers evidence of the resurgence of an ancient secret brotherhood known as the Illuminati, he also faces a deadly threat to the existence of the secret organization's most despised enemy: the Catholic church. 

Upon learning that the clock is ticking on an unstoppable Illuminati time bomb on the eve of a papal conclave, Langdon travels to Rome, where he joins forces with Vittoria Vetra, a beautiful Italian scientist. Embarking on a nonstop hunt through sealed crypts, dangerous catacombs, deserted churches and the Vatican Archives, Langdon and Vetra follow the 400-year-old Path of Illumination that marks the only hope of survival for the Vatican and humanity.  

This film premiered at Rome on May 5. The world's press were allowed see it on May 11. It was universally released on May 14. This timeline matters because William Donohue, the president of the Catholic League issued a press statement and a booklet on May 2 saying that the people who made "Angels & Demons,” "do not hide their animus against all things Catholic… major elements of the Catholic Church's hierarchy are depicted as secretive, violent, conspiratorial, and, of course, anti-science.”

It never helps one's credibility when a person condemns a film without seeing it. It is particularly embarrassing that the Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, whose reviewer did see it at the world premiere at Rome, said that while the church's positions were presented in a "simplistic and partial way” and that it was filled with "stereotyped characters,” that this time "the church is on the side of the good guys.” They concluded that the film is "more than two hours of harmless entertainment, which hardly affects the genius and mystery of Christianity.”

L'Osservatore Romano was too kind. "Angels & Demons" is harmless enough, but it is not all that entertaining. Despite its huge budget and many admirable features, it is not a good film. In fact, it is a silly film, an embarrassment for Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor and especially for the screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman.

To be fair, the art direction, set design, set dressing, costumes, computer animation effects and some of the cinematography is spectacular. But when the story does not hang together and is accompanied by some cringing dialogue (McGregor has the film's worst speech-about religion and science), then all the best technical attributes in this world cannot save it.

Even the ideology is, generally, inoffensive. One of the conciliatory but distracting things in the film is the way the Vatican officials take Robert Langdon to task for his other dealings in regard to the church, a clear reference "The Da Vinci Code." The problem is that "Angels & Demons" was first novel in the series. Given Dan Brown's actual timeline, at least one cardinal and the chief of the Swiss Guard have many gifts, prophecy among them.

"Angels & Demons” paints the Illuminati are a vengeful, evil sect that has a highly placed plant at the Vatican: they are portrayed as evil men doing evil things. The other Vatican officials are earnest and suspicious types who are trying to the do the right thing according to their lights. The most objectionable thing for the church in this film comes when the Chief Cardinal Elector-the office does not exist so I assume he is meant to be the Dean of the Sacred College-who cares more for the good order of the Conclave than the safety of tens of thousands of pilgrims and all the citizens of Rome, because, as he says, "we all have to die sometime.” Terrible.  

It must be conceded that Howard has learnt something from "The Da Vinci Code.” He needed to. His latest film moves a far brisker pace, but the camera work is far too busy, and there are more sweeping shots of the computer-created Vatican City State then we need. Howard, Koepp and Goldsman have also made several major changes to the original story, avoiding the legion of mistakes made in the book.

But some of the changes do not work, like transforming the book's camerlengo, Carlo Ventresca, into a Northern Irishman, Patrick McKenna. Couldn't Ewan McGregor do an Italian accent? In any case McKenna, like Ventresca, still does military service in the Italian Air Force. Just why a Belfast boy needs to do that is never made clear.

These things do not matter or distract as much in the film, however, because it is a fantasy. But, for the record, here are some of the more prominent mistakes:

-The Illuminati were a Masonic group who had nothing to do with science but wanted to take over the world. They were closed down by the Bavarian police in the 1780's. In "Angels & Demons” they are scientific terrorists. 

-Bernini's statue of "The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” was not moved to Santa Maria della Vittoria, but was actually commissioned for that church.

-Under Pope John Paul II's 1996 Apostolic Constitution, "Universi Dominici,” governing conclaves, the camerlengo must be a cardinal, and he enters the conclave.

-The rules regarding the sealing of a conclave are so strict that once the seal is broken (except in the case of sickness or the unavoidable late arrival of a Cardinal from abroad), the conclave is over those who broke the seal can be excommunicated. In this film, the seal leaks like a sieve, and the conclave ends up admitting not simply Patrick McKenna, but also Robert Langdon and Vetra Vittoria. The latter is in a very stylish black cocktail dress replete with mantilla. Where did she get that?  

-The identity of the new pope is not actually known (only conjectured) until he is announced from the balcony, except for the CNN reporter in "Angels & Demons” who knows who it is as soon as the white smoke appears. Apparently CNN deserves to be "The Most Trusted Name in News.”

-There are miracles galore in this film. The Swiss Guard and Robert Langdon recover from severe oxygen deficit within minutes and immediately dash around Rome. One of the cardinals and the camerlengo recover from a deep-wound brand to the chest with other-worldly speed. Modern popes have been embalmed so they can lie in state without incident, and yet the pope whose death starts the ball rolling in this film, is decomposing within days. Finally, and most mystical of all, between his funeral and his internment the Pope has lost two of his three coffins (cypress, zinc and elm). Conveniently for the script he has shed the lead and lost the elm.    

This film, like its predecessor, "The Da Vinci Code,” falls squarely in the thriller genre. And religion, Catholicism in particular, has provided a good number of settings for thrillers: "The Name of the Rose,” "The Omega Code,” "The Order,” "The Omen” and "To Kill A Priest.” The thriller genre entirely works on "whodunit”, and are they going to do it again? The main problem with "Angels & Demons” is that the technical crew provide the only thrilling moments in the film.

In classical theology, angels are God's messengers and demons are fallen angels. This film never rises to any great heights but quickly falls into the abyss of absurdity.

Richard Leonard S.J., is the director of the Australian Catholic office for Film & Broadcasting and author of Movies That Matter: Reading Film Through the Lens of Faith (Loyola Press). 

Comments

David de Carvalho | 5/21/2009 - 6:43am
G'day Richard Couldn't agree more. Wasn't entertaining. Wasn't even thrilling. Perhaps the most preposterous and dullest film since Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes teamed up with Sean Connery in "The Avengers". As for the so-called "Preferiti" - obviously the audience was judged too stupid to be understand the term "Papabili". However I suspect the real stupidity was on the part of the real-life Vatican official who decided to ban the film-makers from church sites, which made the Church look like this film had something serious to say. David de Carvalho

Recently in Film