ROME - On Monday May 4, Rome played host to the world premiere of "Angels and Demons," Ron Howard's new film based on the Dan Brown novel. Days before the launch, promoters were still scurrying about, trying to drum up controversy, to little real effect. A 103-year-old-bishop in Potenza obligingly suggested that Christians boycott the film, and a well-primed anecdote recounted how the Vatican had blocked all filming in churches to thwart the project (fun fact: the Vatican owns fewer than 10 of the 900 churches in Rome and only one featured in the film), but that was about it. Apparently, the Pope and Company were too busy preparing for his visit to the Holy Land to pay much attention to the latest Hollywood release, despite the ubiquitous "Angels and Demons" billboards lining the streets.
So, as I joined the few hundred lucky Romans for the premiere, I wondered how the movie would do now that it had to stand on its own.
Altogether too faithful to Dan Brown's book--which languishes in anti-historical drivel--the script proves little more than a distraction to the real star of the film: Rome in all its (papal) glory. The monuments so lovingly shot by Howard or meticulously recreated by set designer Angus Bickerton showcase a city that was rendered spectacular by 1,600 years of the papacy.
Harvard professor Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks) spouts an endless stream of errors about art, history and Catholicism, reminiscent of the opening monologue in "Conspiracy Theory." Thus viewers are treated to stories of the fictitious castration of statues by Pius IX, the anachronistic placement of the Illuminati in 1600 and the elevation of the Pantheon to the honor of being the first Christian church, all delivered with studied seriousness. If anyone should be protesting this film it should be Harvard University. If its professors so egregiously misrepresented history, it would quickly lose its hard-won prestige.
But through his camera lens, Ron Howard, a man of grand vision and an accomplished storyteller, recognizes papal Rome as a magnificent stage where the greatest human dramas have been played out.
In the first half hour, Howard sweeps viewers from Vatican City to CERN, the Swiss Mecca of science, and then to the hallowed halls of Harvard University, sacred gathering space of the intellectual elite. Howard captures the silent dignity of Harvard Yard and the breathtakingly high tech scientific laboratory of CERN; yet, his stunning portrayal of the Vatican makes it clear he left his heart in Rome.
Howard films St. Peter's with all of its monumental grandeur and its evocative light. He paints the Sistine Chapel with its splendid sacredness. The beautifully crafted objects of the conclave and the choreographed dignity of the liturgy are all lovingly rendered though his lens.
Having worked with the production crew over two years and accompanied Ron Howard and his team to see the Vatican on several occasions, I was always impressed by the respect he showed in the Vatican, whether sweeping the ever-present baseball cap from his head as he entered the Sistine Chapel, or standing in silent wonder in St. Peter's Basilica. He recognized the seriousness and loyalty of the Swiss guards, something which shines through in the film.
As if to counteract his cinematic love affair with Catholic Rome, Howard takes a couple visual pot shots. One of the first scenes has the cardinals entering into conclave crushing out cigarettes and flipping off cell phones (something one would never see). Given that modern sensibilities generally equate smoking with the bad guys, this is a gratuitous dig.
Howard improbably has Catholics protesting stem cell research in Saint Peter's Square, where a riot breaks out over church and science--during the papal conclave, no less. This bizarre vignette mercifully fades quickly from memory as the movie moves to a fast-paced car chase through Rome, capturing the real energy of the Eternal City.
As the characters dash through the underground excavation around St. Peter's grave, we find ourselves forced to confront the ancient origins of the Roman church. St. Peter, dumped in a humble hole in the ground, became a seed that would grow into the Roman Catholic Church. As Howard's camera takes us from the subterranean tunnels to the plain burial crypt to the majestic vaults of the basilica and into the piazza packed with the faithful followers, one wonders whether any other religion could provide such fascinating fodder. It taxes the imagination to picture such a fuss made over the Congregationalist church.
The Catholic Church--with its rites, ancient heritage, 1.1 billion believers and relentless ability to inspire artists to create transcendental works--exerts a powerful pull on almost everyone. To paraphrase the poet Horace, captive Rome captivated her conquerors. While here to film a story about the weaknesses and failings of the Church, the production team of Imagine Entertainment ended up immortalizing its beauty and grandeur on film.
Yet, for all that, it is a film to be seen, not heard (except for Hans Zimmer's stirring score). In reveling in the angelic vision of the glory of Rome, one might be able to forget the demons in the script.