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'Angels and Demons' favors out-of-date stereotypes

June 22, 2009|By TERRY MATTINGLY / Scripps Howard News Service

Near the end of Dan Brown's "Angels & Demons," the beautiful scientist Vittoria Vetra clashes with a Vatican official who insists that the day researchers prove how God acted in creation is "the day people stop needing faith."

"You mean the day they stop needing the church," she shouts, weaving together the novel's main themes. "But the church is not the only enlightened soul on the planet! We all seek God in different ways. ...

"God is not some omnipotent authority looking down from above, threatening to throw us into a pit of fire if we disobey. God is the energy that flows through the synapses of our nervous system and the chambers of our hearts! God is in all things!"

This long speech is not in the movie based on Brown's first novel about the dashing Harvard professor Robert Langdon, who uses his encyclopedic knowledge of art, religion, history, literature, architecture and archeology to crack through layers of ancient conspiracies that bedevil modern humanity.

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This is, however, a speech that - as a sermon by the author - offers insights into the worldview behind "Angels & Demons" and the novel that followed it.

That, of course, was "The Da Vinci Code," which ignited a global firestorm because of its depiction of Jesus as a brilliant, charismatic and ultimately misunderstood mortal man who married the brilliant, charismatic and misunderstood Mary Magdalene and had a child with her before his untimely death. This power couple's goal was to create an inclusive, dogma-free, sexually enlightened faith. But, alas, the power-hungry patriarchs who created Christianity - especially the Roman Catholic Church - conspired to wreck and bury their work.

Director Ron Howard, who also directed "The Da Vinci Code" movie, admits that large parts of "Angels & Demons" were scrapped and rewritten while turning the prequel into a sequel. Brown gave his blessing since the book's major themes remained intact.

As with "The Da Vinci Code," Howard is convinced that he has not created an anti-Catholic film. His goal, he said, was to raise questions about the nature of faith.

"I believe in God, yes, I do. I'm not a member of a church at the moment," he told reporters, before "Angels & Demons" reached theaters.

"There is no personal struggle, for me, between my beliefs and religion. Basically, in a nutshell, I believe that our intelligence, and our curiosity, and our drive to know more are a part of the plan.

"... But I haven't worked to directly sort of inject my personal spirituality and belief system into the story."

The goal, while spinning another conspiracy-theory thriller, was to focus on "the threat that some in the Vatican may feel about what science represents, what it proposes to say about the origins of the universe and the origins of man," he said.

The plot begins with the sudden death of a "progressive and beloved pope." Then, all hell breaks loose as someone claiming to represent a secret society of freethinkers called the "Illuminati" kidnaps what the book describes as the four "liberal," reform-minded cardinals who were the top candidates to become pope and begins murdering them in public rituals.

As the coup de grace, this mysterious killer has arranged to steal a container of antimatter produced at the CERN Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border. Langdon and Vetra have to rush around - call it "24" meets a papal conclave - and find this missing "God particle" stuff before it explodes and vaporizes Vatican City.

By the time it's all over, Langdon and company have solved a papal-murder mystery, saved the enlightened cardinal who ultimately becomes pope and, literally, saved the throne of St. Peter from being captured by a madman who is, of course, the story's most articulate conservative Catholic.

This villain "feels that the church is going down the wrong path" as it pursues peace with science and modernity, noted actor Ewan McGregor. "He thinks that the church is becoming watered down and is becoming weaker and weaker. ... He's trying to put it back on course."

The key is that "Angels & Demons" offers a Vatican that contains good Catholics and bad Catholics. By the end of the film, said Howard, Langdon has gained a "more complex view of the church."

In the end, there are good Catholics and bad Catholics and Brown and Howard get to determine who is who.

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