So here’s the good news: It is safe to go see “Angels & Demons.” I didn’t think the novel of the same name was especially anti-Catholic, but director Ron Howard was apparently stung by reactions to “The Da Vinci Code” adaptation and so scrubbed any Jack Chick traces from the screenplay, as well as a lot of the other absurd plot points that made the novel so terribly good.


And that’s the bad news, too: “Angels & Demons” is so tame that it’s hardly worth spending two hours on it–unless you’re in a sparsely-populated screening room with really excellent easy chairs, as I was.


What is worth seeing are the awesome CGI images of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Square, which are front and center as the film opens with shots of a pope’s funeral–clearly inspired by the outpouring for John Paul II. If you didn’t make it to Rome for that funeral (and that would have put you in a minority of the world’s Catholics, I think), the movie will give you a sense of it. So why was Ron Howard all hissy about being refused permission to film in the square and the basilica The Vatican never gives such permission anyway, and certainly wouldn’t after “The Da Vinci Code.” (The film winks at this several times in some of its better moments, such as when the head of the Vatican police asks Langdon if he is anti-Catholic.)


But with the miracle of styrofoam travertine and computer-generated images, who needs Rome? Admittedly, some of the other mock-ups are appalling, such as Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.


As for the story, well, there’s a plot, and we jump right in, switching from the Vatican to the CERN particle physics lab in Switzerland where a beautiful Italian scientist Vittoria Vetra (played by Ayelet Zurer) is leading the first attempt to create…anti-matter! (No, this isn’t “Star Trek.”) There is also a priest-scientist, thus foreshadowing the real theme of the film, which is the conflict or collaboration of faith and science. Apparently the dead pope was very cozy with science, the chagrin of many. And the priest at CERN will join the pontiff in the hereafter–minus an eyeball, though I trust he will be made whole–shortly, thus setting off the scavenger hunt narrative, such as it it.


Normally I like plot-heavy fare. I watch “24” religiously, despite it’s patent absurdities and the fact that its ethical vision may be rotting my soul. But “Angels & Demons” was a page-turner as a novel, nothing more–the writing ranges from atrocious to bad–and stripping it down leaves only a skeleton. Which is pretty much what the characters are. Sure, Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon adds his usual and irresistible Everyman wryness (and he’s had his hair cut, thank goodness). And Ayelet Zurer is a mature beauty with bags under her eyes–a wonderful change from the Bratz dolls usually cast in these roles. But the romance that Brown wrote in the novel has also been removed. In defending his film against the verbal assaults of the Catholic League’s prez, Bill Donohue, Ron Howard said the film was not anti-Catholic and added: “I believe Catholics, including most in the hierarchy of the Church, will enjoy the movie.” Well, he may think the hierarchy is stupid, but they’re not prudes. And neither are the rest of us. Taking out the sex does not make a film more Catholic. Al contrario, I’d say.


But I digress. On to the real spoilers! (After the jump, of course…)

What of the Illuminati, the secret society that turns out to have been behind the death of the pope, and which is planning to destory the Vatican–and the conclave of cardinals meeting to elect a successor–using anti-matter stolen that day from CERN?! Donohue and others fulminate that in fact the Illuminati, a fraternity of freethinkers that existed for a few years in the late 1700s before being disbanded by the emperor, do not exist. But they really don’t exist–either in the novel or in the film. They Illuminati are a school of red herrings, or actually one red herring, whose identity will be revealed shortly.


Yes, there are the claims made as fact, namely that the Illuminati existed in the 16th century and Galileo and other famous names were members. And of course that the Church “hunted them down and killed” them (like the mythic witches the Vatican was said to have eliminated) and “drove them underground and into a sercet society.” Shades of Al Qaeda.


The Big Reveal, however, is the same as in the book: There is no secret society, just a rogue priest, the Camerlengo, or Chamberlain, played by Ewan McGregor, who brought far more priestly charm to his role as the Jedi knight (and pseudo-Jesuit) Obi-Wan Kenobi. Okay, that a priest would be the Camerlengo is funny. But that’s the end of the laughs. This Camerlengo turns out to be the bad guy, a raving right-wing nut case who has turned on his father-figure, the deceased pope, because he feels got too cozy with modern science. Hence the plot to use science to destroy a church (St. Peter’s, in particular) that must be entirely rebuilt, with himself as pope.


Lots of people–and a few cardinals–die gruesome deaths, as they plot ticks off the requisite scenes until the mask drops and Langdon saves all. There is reconciliation between Science and Church, Langdon and the cardinals.


“Religion is flawed, but only because man is flawed,” the new Camerlengo, a cardinal, tells Langdon at the end. “All men. Including this one,” he says, pointing to himself. (The new pope takes the name Luke–the doctor, to symbolize the marriage of faith and science. How come movie popes always get names real popes never use?)


“Mr. Langdon,” the Camerlengo continues, “thanks be to God for sending someone to protect the Church.”


“Father, I don’t believe he sent me,” Tom Hanks replies, getting His Eminence’s title wrong–some symbologist!


“Oh, my son! Of course he did,” says the cardinal.


Nice. But you never really feel there was anything at stake, and maybe that’s where Dan Brown doesn’t “get” the church. Why should we care? If you’d made it anti-Catholic, maybe someone would.


But what may really make the likes of Bill Donohue and the evangelical movie maven Ted Baehr mad is that the bad guy turns out to be a right-wing raver who castigates the dead pope and the cardinals and the rest for going soft, for allowing the modern world to take over. Sound familiar?


In effect, the film is respectful of the Catholic tradition of faith and reason, and the Catholic tradition of rejecting fanaticism in favor of careful discernment. The system of celibate old men with their sexist, dogmatic blinders turns out to be the best one, at least in this movie.


What happened? Dan Brown wrote “Angels & Demons” before “The Da Vinci Code,” but it went nowhere. Perhaps that’s what prompted him to write “Trhe Da Vinci Code” next, with its anti-Catholic stereotypes–and it worked. Ron Howard then made “The Da Vinci Code” movie, which was awful but a commercial success, and got hammered by Donohue et al. So in a reversal of Brown’s path, he has made a film that is kindly to Catholicism–but not to moviegoers looking for more. As the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, put it, the movie is little more than “harmless entertainment” with many factual errors and little cultural value. 


In the end, the movie isn’t as bad as the book, but that makes it worse. It’s the problem of playing camp as straight.


Yes, there are plenty of corkers for Vaticanisti and clerical trivia mavens to cluck over. The favored candidates for election in the conclave are called preferiti instead of papabile, and it’s as if they have a formal office, as does the so-called Grand Elector. (No mention of the Holy Spirit.) The new pope wins “election by adoration” rather than “acclamation.” And the movie traffics in the usual myths–hilarious to anyone who has ever stepped foot in the Vatican–that the Holy See is an efficient and technologically top-of-the line place where Renaissance art pulls back to reveal rooms that would make Pentagon wargamers feel at home. The Vatican archive is to die for, and wonderfully implausible. Almost as much as the idea of an anti-matter bomb–if anyone should cry “Foul!” it is the Union of Particle Physicists, or whatever. 


But they get much right–the chain-smoking prelates, e.g. And the Vatican could take notes on how to run a conclave, especially burning the ballots, which went awry in 2005–yet again.


Two final points that may change my mind entirely:


One: Does anyone else think that the Columbia Pictures logo–the lady holding the torch–is a ripoff of Our Lady of Lourdes? Just askin’.


Two: Langdon’s charge that Pope Pius IX had all the penises knocked off the classical statuary in 1857 in the so-called “Great Castration” seems to be an urban legend. But I can’t prove it. And it would be a greater slander than any Illuminati plots.


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