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The Vatican has a few demons of its own

The church’s sensitivity to the new Dan Brown movie, Angels and Demons, reveals a lack of faith in its own message.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Brown’s back. No, not gorgeous Gordon – who’s right where he always has been, in the mire – but devilish Dan, the scourge of the Catholic church. That’s right, all people Papal will be averting their eyes and blocking their ears this week as the prequel to The Da Vinci Code, the equally conspiratorial Angels and Demons, gets its big screen airing.

For the profane of temperament, Angels and Demons certainly marks an improvement on its movie predecessor. Where The Da Vinci Code was ponderous and given to excessive exposition, Angels and Demons is pacey and given to utterly unintelligible exposition. While this might disappoint fans of the pseudo insight of The Da Vinci Code, where it was revealed that Jesus and the star of the Nazareth Escort Agency, Mary Magdalene, had procreational sex, for those who found its po-faced, snail-paced silliness a bit tiresome, Angels and Demons’ smirking-faced, fast-paced silliness is a blessed relief.

Once again, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, played by the implausibly coiffeured Tom Hanks, is the hero. He’s like a post-modern Indiana Jones, less bothered with really old things than really old signs, but, when push comes to shove, equally adept at running around in an ungainly manner and clumsily saving lives. When we meet Langdon this time round, he’s enjoying an early morning swim only to be interrupted by an officer from the Vatican police. Four cardinals have been kidnapped. They’re not just any old cardinals, however, there the Preferiti, the preferred candidates to replace the recently deceased pope. And unless they can be found before the following evening, each hour will see one executed.

How can an academic like Langdon help? Well as the note indicates, they’ve been kidnapped by the Illuminati, a group of seventeenth-century Enlightenment types, persecuted by the Catholic Church and thought to have disappeared centuries ago. Langdon, with a PhD in deciphering really difficult clues, is ideally placed to decrypt the Illuminati’s historical trail, ‘the path of illumination’, and locate their current whereabouts.

Still, even when armed with Langdon’s semiotic ingenuity, not to mention his pneumatic hair, things are looking very grave for the Vatican. In addition to the kidnapped cardinals, a cylinder of anti-matter (yes, big explosion fans, anti-matter) has been stolen from the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Geneva and the Illuminati are threatening to use it to reduce Vatican City to, well, nothing. Since Langdon’s strength is interpreting stuff at funny angles, not science, he’s helped out by a CERN physicist called Vittoria Vetra (played by Ayelet Zurer). A mere wisp of goose fat and pouting seduction, she’s a dead ringer for a non-voluptuous Nigella Lawson, which, if you watch Angels and Demons on an empty stomach, can be a little disconcerting.

But even Lawson-lithe’s not as disconcerting as Ewan McGregor’s idealist Vatican official, Camerlengo Patrick. He’s a good-looking, wide-eyed zealot. Most frightening of all is the accent. He’s meant to be from Northern Ireland, an orphan of ‘the Troubles’ adopted by the late Pope. But judging by his bejaysus tones he sounds like he’s been doing method-acting on Craggy Island. And when he’s not doing his best Father Ted impersonation, he sounds curiously like slug-browed UK chancellor Alistair Darling. Very strange indeed.

Anyway, distractions aside, it’s a race both against time and through various Roman tunnels for Langdon and his slimfast-Lawson-lite sidekick. There’s no getting around it. Sometimes exciting, always bewildering, Angels and Demons is not an unenjoyable way to spend 139 minutes.

Yet for some, it’s far more than that. In the eyes of the Vatican, Dan Brown’s novels and their film adaptations threaten the existence of the Catholic church itself. It’s like 1517 all over again, with Dan Brown, a latter-day Martin Luther, nailing his anti-Papal thriller franchise to the global media. ‘[The Da Vinci Code] is everywhere’, said Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone in 2005, ‘there is a very real risk that many people who read it will believe that the fables it contains are true’ (1).

Despite the recent attempts to downplay the significance of Angels and Demons, Vatican anxiety continues to abound (2). Gianni Gennari, a theologian and columnist for Italian bishops’ daily Avvenire, urged a boycott of Angels and Demons on the basis that the film was part of a plot to undermine the credibility of the church (3). Elsewhere, the response has been equally over-the-top. Explaining why the Angels and Demons filmmakers were forbidden access to various Rome churches, the distinctly untrustworthy-sounding Father Fibbi replied: ‘Usually we read the script, but in this case it wasn’t necessary. Just the name Dan Brown was enough. Angels and Demons peddles a type of fantasy that damages our common religious beliefs, just like The Da Vinci Code did.’ (4)

This reveals much about the current self-perception of the Vatican. To suspect that a series of enjoyable-but-implausible thrillers will plunge Catholics across the world into pangs of Lutheran self-doubt is as absurd as believing that universities will be swimming with aspiring symbologists. If this is what Vatican City really believes, Dan Brown is the least of their worries. For there is nothing more threatening to a Church than a faith which lacks faith in itself.

The irony is that the film is not actually anti-Catholic at all. It’s just anti-bad guys. As Cardinal Strauss says towards the end, ‘Religion is flawed, but only because men is flawed.’ (Don’t worry, he’s Austrian and hasn’t learnt to conjugate the verb ‘to be’ yet.) In fact, if you were to divine a critical impulse in the film, the human hubris of science receives far greater attention than the flawed, but essentially good-hearted Catholics. Throughout, there are perfunctory discussions on the necessary compatibility of science and faith, that the facts of one need the value-giving force of the other. Brown himself said: ‘One thing I like about this story, which is preserved in the movie, is that it takes a very balanced look at tough topics. Nothing here is black and white. One could very easily argue that the Church is not the enemy here, but rather that science is.’ (5)

Brown, while perhaps overplaying the perspicacity of his ‘men are flawed’ critique, is right to point out that Angels and Demons is not the rightful heir to sixteenth-century sacerdotal satire In Praise of Folly. Brown’s talent lies elsewhere. He has an acute awareness of the workings of the contemporary predilection for the conspiracy theory. Little wonder his hero’s expertise lies in reading the hidden meaning of canonical works. This certainty that there’s a suppressed version of events behind the veil of official truth animates Brown’s fictional universe.

The Catholic Church is not Brown’s necessary enemy, however. It just happens to have played a not-insignificant part in Western history. The institutional foe could just as easily be a secular body, the British state for instance, as the Vatican. What matters is the crisis of authority, of legitimacy, eating away at the heart of many Western institutions. It is this which provides the precondition for doubting official versions of events, whether it’s a scriptural interpretation or a report on Weapons of Mass Destruction.

While the idea of hidden, cassocked forces manipulating temporal and spiritual powers makes for thrilling fiction, it doesn’t do a great deal for truth. The Vatican should show a little more faith.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

Watch the trailer for Angels and Demons here.

(1) Church fights Da Vinci Code novel, BBC News, 15 March 2005

(2) Angels and Demons: Vatican breaks silence to review film, Daily Telegraph, 7 May 2009

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