Thursday, August 22, 2019

Take Me Down to Vatican City Month: Angels and Demons

Angels and Demons (2009)
Early in Ron Howard’s Angels and Demons, Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), accompanied by a member of the Vatican police, notices something about the statues they are passing as they walk through the Vatican. The Professor launches into a lecture (because he always launches into lectures) about “the Great Castration” performed by Pope Pius IX who had all the male statues in Vatican City “de-manned.” The officer, Inspector Olivetti, asks, “Are you anti-Catholic, Professor Langdon?” 

He responds, “No. I’m anti-vandalism.”

Both of Langdon's statements prove to be rather questionable. 

This 2009 film is a sequel to 2006's The Da Vinci Code (which we looked at earlier this year). In that film, the Catholic Church is a vile institution that employs assassins and knowingly hides the truth. If everything in the first film was true, then Langdon would have to be demented himself not to be anti-Catholic.

To make things more clear (or perhaps more murky), though the film Angels and Demons is a sequel to The Da Vinci CodeThe Da Vinci Code novel by Dan Brown is a sequel to Angels and Demons, an earlier novel by Dan Brown. It's possible for the protagonist to go through the events of Angels and Demons without hating the Catholic church, but I don’t see how anyone could go through the events of The Da Vinci Code and still have warm fuzzies about the Church.

At the beginning of the film, Langdon is approached by a representative from the Vatican. Langdon thinks it must have something to do with his request to visit the Vatican Archives. He has already written one book about the Illuminati, but his request to visit the Vatican Archives (which he needs to do to write a sequel) has been denied seven times.

Actually, Langdon is being recruited to help with a crisis at the Vatican. The pope has died and the four Cardinals who are the leading papal candidates have been kidnapped and threatened with execution. The Vatican police believe Langdon might be able to help because they believe the Illuminati may be responsible for the crimes.

This, of course, leads to one of Langdon’s impromptu lectures -- this one about the Illuminati. Langdon claims it is an organization formed in the time of Galileo. The church persecuted scientists for teaching “heretical” things, such as a heliocentric solar system, so they formed a secret organization called the Illuminati.

When Langdon arrives at Rome, he learns that someone also stole “anti-matter” from a lab and plans to blow up the Vatican after the four Cardinals are kidnapped. Langdon claims that in order to track down the fiends, he will need to do research in the Vatican Archives, but he is told that he can only do so with papal approval and there is no pope.

Langdon counters that he knows that during the “days of the empty throne,” the time before the conclave elects a pope, papal authority is invested in the “Camelengo.” Langdon goes to see the Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), who asks Langdon if he believes in God. Langdon answers, “I’m an academic. My mind tells me I will never understand God.” 

Huh. Thomas Aquinas and C.S. Lewis seemed to carry off being both theists and academics.

Anyway, the Camerlengo lets Langdon into the Archives along with the anti-matter scientist, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer). He just asks them to treat the Archives with respect. Langdon develops the theory that the Cardinals will be executed at four different cathedrals, each representing one of the Four Elements, which the Illuminati honor. (I thought that was strange; the Greek teaching on the elements had a basis in philosophy but not at all in science.)

Langdon believes one of the books in the Archives contains a clue, and he asks Vittoria to copy the information. Instead, Vittoria tears the page out of the book. Which is vandalism. 

Why don't I think Langdon is really anti-vandalism? Langdon just smirks at this. Later in the film, Langdon finds himself trapped in the Archives and to escape, he knocks down bookshelves and wildly fires a gun. He places his own life over securing the archives. He’s a vandal.

But we're not here to cite the hypocrisy of Professor Langdon. How are the church and clergy presented?

Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), the chief of the Vatican police, makes the one good defense of the Roman Catholic Church. When Langdon makes what the commander considers a disparaging remark about the church, Richter lectures, “My church comforts the sick and dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do, Professor?”

The great crowds around the Vatican as the Conclave meets to elect a new Pope indicate that the Catholic Church has a lot of fans in the film.

So how does the clergy come across in the film? We mainly see the Camerlengo. He seems like a good guy initially. He gives the professor what he needs to investigate the crimes. When it looks like the Vatican may blow up, he urges the Conclave to break and go to safely. And what appears to be his most heroic act; when the anti-matter bomb is discovered, the Camerlengo snatches the bomb and all alone takes it up in a helicopter where the bomb can safely explode, and he parachutes safely to the ground.

After that desperate act, it looks like the Camerlengo will win the Papacy by acclamation, even though he's only a priest and not a Cardinal. But then we learn the Big Twist. 

(As they say, spoilers) 

There was no resurgence of the Illuminati. There were no outside conspirators. The Camerlengo has put together the whole diabolic scheme to get himself elected pope, including murdering the previous pope, apparently, so he can oppose science. (His reasoning is never very clear.) 

This is a pretty risky plot. It doesn’t go as planned, because Langdon does manage to save one of the bishops. How could the Camerlengo be so sure he’d survive the anti-matter explosion? Since there had never been such an event before, how can he be so sure anyone could survive the antimatter explosion?

When the Camerlengo’s plan fails, he lights himself on fire (which causes white smoke to billow from the Vatican smokestack).

The Cardinal who takes the job of Pope names himself Luke, as the physician represents “science.” He seems like he might be a good guy. But that Camerlengo certainly rates our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple. 

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