Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review: Angels & Demons

Back in 2003 when everyone was going crazy reading Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, I decided instead to read his first book with character Robert Langdon, Harvard professor and symbologist, called Angels & Demons (2000). Despite the initial 50 pages where I had to suspend reality, shortly thereafter I was swept up in the action and adventure, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. When I finally got around to reading Da Vinci, I was sorely disappointed. The book dragged in comparison, and there was little that anyone who had gone to college and taken some humanities courses, or watched a few documentaries on the History Channel, would not have encountered already. Still, people were in awe of his book. The 2006 film version of Da Vinci was awful, despite the star-studded cast of Tom Hanks, Ian McKellan, and the delectable Audrey Tatou, and the talents of director Ron Howard. As a result, I didn't have high hopes for the film version of Angels & Demons. I went to see it today with my friends KB and TF (aka Mr. and Mrs. New York Portraits). Imagine my surprise when it surpassed all of my expectations.

Although the book is a prequel to Da Vinci, here the film is a sequel. The movie follows the story of Langdon and physicist Vittoria Vetra as they work to interpret symbols, free four cardinals from a mysterious religio-scientific cult called the Illuminati, and find an anti-matter bomb before it blows away all of Vatican City and everyone waiting for news about the election of the next pope. It sounds ridiculously far-fetched, but it actually makes for a great action film. Because of the symbols (in this case pointing angels, the four elements, and sculpture by Bernini), the story plays out like a mystery, which heightens the tension. The film version took some liberties with the book, but they are not so relevant that their absence interferes with the film's development. The film sequences shot in Rome are spectacular, but there was definitely some computer enhancement in some scenes (e.g. the piazza outside St. Peter's is large, but some shots make it seem shockingly stretched for theatrical effect; further research has informed me that many of the interiors, including that of St. Peter's, were all built in studios in Los Angeles). Despite the fact that almost everyone seems to speak English perfectly, it was refreshing to hear lots of Italian and other languages, as if to emphasize the international impact of the storyline. The movie is violent at times (poor KB was squirming in her seat more than once), but I think it's warranted because it plays out the horror of the situation at hand.

I've never been a big fan of Tom Hanks, but he's quite strong in this movie as Langdon. Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer as Vittoria seems natural, but she's relatively downplayed and not very inspiring. The real strength of this film is Ewan McGregor, who plays Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, a priest whose association with the now-deceased pope and temporary position as head of the Vatican is the impetus for much of the story. Admittedly, I'm biased. Ewan McGregor is my dream boyfriend, so I love everything he does. The more I saw him in that black priest gown, the more naughty thoughts kept entering my head. But I digress...

I confess (no pun intended) that what struck me both about the book and now the movie is that while the storyline comes off as being anti-Catholic and anti-Vatican, I found it to be sympathetic. Cardinal Strauss aptly sums up this message in the film when he says to Langdon "The Church is flawed but only because man is flawed. All men, including this one." Having been raised Catholic, and now living as a so-called Recovering Catholic, I must say that this is the sort of message I keep hoping the Church will express, a sense that it acknowledges it's human and is trying to do the best it can for people. Instead, it's entrenched in the trappings of rituals that seem foreign to our modern world. It prefers to stay in the Dark Ages with many of its teachings as well. The fact that they publicly denounced Brown's novels and were not very cooperative in the shooting of both films demonstrates their own fear of the unknown. I guess one can hope for change, but I'm not convinced it's going to happen anytime soon.

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