I’m back…

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve posted. My Lenten resolution to post more frequently was not a success…but that’s about to change…although it will be an Easter resolution. First things first. I was able to see Angels & Demons and wanted to get my thoughts out about it.

For those who enjoy the treasure hunt for conspiracy theories, Angels & Demons doesn’t reward with a treasure, but does offer a few golden coins of enjoyment and insight.


With the Vatican newspaper’s comment that Angels & Demons is “harmless entertainment,” the controversy surrounding the film has been deflated. Yet, for the thoughtful viewer, there is still much to think about.


The film begins just after the Pope has died and the papal conclave to elect the new pope has been called. Four cardinals–all of whom are considered possible successors to the previous pope–are missing. In addition, the Vatican receives the threat of a bomb made of an up-till-now impossible material, anti-matter, that will destroy Vatican City. When a secret society called the Illuminati claims responsibility for the threats, the Vatican calls in the known expert on the Illuminati, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). And the chase begins….


In many ways more cohesive and enjoyable than the first film, The Da Vinci Code, the plot of Angels & Demons doesn’t entirely make sense, but at least we are spared unending, repetitive diatribes that inaccurately try to reduce history into ridiculous conspiracy theories about the Catholic Church.


In addition, Angels & Demons has some well-crafted elements: the re-creation of some beautiful sites in the Vatican; some intriguing, and occasionally unexpected, plot twists from the novel. Tom Hanks gives a much more appealing performance in this film as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, perhaps in part because of the humor and humility added to his character. And Ewan MacGregor gives a strong performance as Father Carlo Ventrasca, the camerlengo (or personal assistant to the previous pope, who oversees the daily affairs of the Vatican until a new pope is elected) who is caught between his convictions, the terrorist crisis, and his lack of power in the face of the conclave of cardinals. Even the ending, while true to the novel’s spirit, is somewhat changed–and for the better.


I am not a fan of the conspiracy/treasure hunting/thriller genre that the films based on Dan Brown’s novels seem to define. They strut onscreen with self-importance. (Even in the opening music of Angels & Demons, there is no subtlety. Rather than feeling invited into a fictional world, I felt batted into it.) In addition, the genre also seems to have to “dumb everything down” or require long-winded explanations to support the plot (how credibly depends on your background in history). In particular, Brown’s research is often sloppy or deliberately twisted/changed to fit “history” to his fictional plots. And the obsession with plot leaves no room at all for character development. 


Angels & Demons shares in all these weaknesses–full of inaccuracies or plain fiction that at first glance might seem historically based. For example, the plot is driven by the threat of the Illuminati as a secret, scientific society which seeks to take revenge on the Church for being persecuted 150 years ago. According to the story, the Illuminati had such famous members as Galileo and Bernini. Historically, the actual group called the Illuminati existed in Germany for only 20 years or so, about a century after Galileo and Bernini died. And there is no indication that a group called the Illuminati had a scientific focus.  


But all in all, compared to the first film The Da Vinci Code and the original novel, Angels & Demons is much more balanced in its approach to the Church. One of the central questions the novel raises is the tension between faith and science–and it tries to bring that tension to a height that rings quite false to knowledgeable Catholics today. In the film, however, despite some of Langdon’s rhetoric, at a certain moment it becomes clear that this film was not only not going to promote anti-Catholic sentiment, but instead, take a surprisingly conciliatory approach. I realize this at the moment when Langdon walks into the Vatican, criticizing an action of one of the Popes. His companion, who works at the Vatican, asks him upfront: “Are you anti-Catholic?” and Langdon stops, surprised. He dismisses the question with a “no,” followed by a joke that earned my smile. From that moment on, the tension in the film between faith and science dissipates, even offering the possibility that science and faith are two complementary ways of approaching truth, rather than mutually exclusive, antagonistic paths.


There were three things about the film that I particularly disliked–the first by far being the most serious. First, it’s troublesome that the deaths of members of the clergy are so violent and gruesome, but the film earned only a PG-13 rating. Though the film doesn’t show a great deal of blood, it’s very clear what’s happening, and it’s truly horrific.


Secondly, the film is very much a male-dominated film. Vittoria Vetra–acted competently enough by Ayelet Zurer–is the only woman in the film, and her role is basically a throw-away. She doesn’t actually do much of anything to affect the narrative.


Thirdly, the film is weighed down by a repetitive middle where my attention wandered–with our hero arriving always with five minutes or less to save the next cardinal.


Despite its weaknesses, the aptly named film is an often-entertaining conspiracy thriller that will keep the audience guessing and on its toes: who are the real angels and who are the real demons?

For some thoughtful reviews, check out:
Sr. Rose Pacatte’s Review and Commentary in the National Catholic Reporter

The Signis Statement and Review by Father Peter Malone

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