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ROME-Ron Howard isn't going to sit out the controversy over his latest Dan Brown movie adaptation, Angels & Demons. When the U.S. Catholic League's William Donohue accused the two-time Oscar-winning director last month of "smearing the Catholic church" and "painting it as anti-reason," Howard came back with his own commentary on The Huffington Post: "Neither I nor Angels & Demons are anti-Catholic."
Howard told reporters in Rome on May 3 he is frustrated by Catholic opposition to his latest movie, which premiered May 4 in Rome and opens nationwide in the United States May 15. Catholic critics, he said, are running on "abstract anxiety"-none had seen the movie, and Catholic leaders who received an invitation to a pre-screening in March all declined. That same day Howard learned that the bishop of Rome had issued a formal denouncement of the movie, calling it "harmful to the church."
Church officials are smarting from the runaway success of Dan Brown's 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, which sold more than 80 million copies to become one of the best selling novels of all time-and Howard's 2006 movie adaptation of the book, which made $750 million in spite of poor reviews. In it, the Harvard professor Robert Langdon, played by Tom Hanks, uncovers church secrets suggesting that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered a child. Not surprisingly, Catholic and Protestant groups objected.
Angels & Demons, while retailing a fast and loose interpretation of church history (and art and science), does not go so far as to commit blasphemy against the Christian story itself.
In the movie (rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images, and thematic material), the Vatican summons its nemesis, religious symbology expert Langdon, to resolve a crisis: The pope has died suddenly and as the College of Cardinals prepares to meet to select a new one, four candidates are abducted. The kidnapper promises to kill one publicly over each of the next four hours. At the same time, the killer has planted a tube of newly formulated, deadly antimatter-the so-called "God particle"-somewhere in the Vatican, ready to destroy the church with all remaining cardinals inside.
Langdon teams up with Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), the antimatter scientist from the Swiss CERN lab that produced the canister, and Vatican investigator Ernesto Olivetti (Pierfrancesco Favino) in a race against time to stop the killings and rescue the canister. All takes place under the watchful eye of the Camerlengo, or pope's chamberlain, played compellingly by Ewan McGregor in a role at times resembling his cassocked Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Hanks told reporters that if Da Vinci was a treasure hunt, "then this is a horse race"-and the pace of Angels & Demons is a vast improvement over The Da Vinci Code. His lead is a leaner, better shorn Robert Langdon, transformed from a religious cynic to what Hanks calls "an ambassador of enlightenment." The Camerlengo asks Langdon, "Do you believe in God, sir?" Langdon replies, "I'm an academic. My mind tells me I will never understand God. My heart tells me I am not meant to have faith. Faith is a gift I have yet to receive."
An international cast enlarges lavish cinematography filmed in Rome and on sets at the Hollywood Park Racetrack. Howard splices news-like footage into dramatic scenes much the way he did in his 2008 film Frost/Nixon. And composer Hans Zimmer (Frost/Nixon, The Dark Knight) captures the baroque-meets-contemporary atmosphere of this Vatican-meets-Bourne Ultimatum romp. In other words, Angels is no Gladiator but delivers on suspense and engaging characters.
As in Bourne and other thrillers, following Langdon as he uncovers the signposts of the Illuminati will lose some moviegoers. The plot, centered on the legendary sect allegedly determined to bring down the church, can be hard to track for those who haven't read the book. And for those who have, how far the film's storyline departs from it will be a distraction.
The romantic element of the book is gone, and so is female protagonist Vetra's passion. In print Vetra is an essential partner for Langdon; on screen she is a wasted sidekick who laments that the worst thing she once thought could happen to the antimatter is "that it would fall into the hands of energy companies."
The assassin also is transformed in ways that confuse his motives. A sadistic Arab in the 2000 book has become in the post-9/11 film a spectacled killer who sometimes wears a priest's collar and says his mission is "the Lord's will . . . or Allah's or Yahweh's." His connection to the Illuminati-or the ultimate mastermind-isn't clear. The violence, however, is realistic and disturbing, too disturbing for preteen and perhaps some early-teen viewers.
The book's conclusion involves a showdown between science and religion. Though it retains a fantastical ending, the film softens the theme: Early on we learn that church and science are a "different language telling the same story" and we are told near the end, "the world is in need of science and faith"-perhaps in contrast to the faithful in St. Peter's Square seen carrying "stem cell research is murder" placards.
Howard told me he doesn't personally see a bright line between science and religious faith, specifically Christian faith, "but I recognize that in some circles there is one." He said in reference to criticism from church leaders, "In my heart I am not intentionally trying to upset people. By the same token, if I did not believe in some of the main themes and questions or the Robert Langdon stance, I would not be making the movie. If that is controversial to people, so be it."
Regarding changes made from book to screen, Howard said, "There was no attempt to soften or strengthen the themes." That may be true, but behind-the-scene changes suggest an attempt to move away from Howard's previous Brown adaptation. Howard called in Indiana Jones screenwriter David Koepp for Angels and hired Catholic advisers on the set for filming in the United States and Rome. In Rome he also brought in as a consultant Elizabeth Lev, an art historian and outspoken critic of The Da Vinci Code who wrote an article in 2004 about the "silly speculations of Dan Brown."
An American who lives in Rome and teaches art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus, Lev says Brown's book "sounds like one of my college students who did not do his homework but loves Rome." She told me she had "major qualms" about being involved in the second movie but realized it was an opportunity for furthering a discussion on the historic role of religion.
Angels' principals, too, found themselves engaging religious questions. Hanks declared to reporters in Rome ahead of the premiere, "I am a spiritual man," citing his membership in a Greek Orthodox church where he and his wife were married, where she was baptized, and where his children were baptized in the same font. Pressed at one point to discuss his views of the Vatican and its policies, including teaching on birth control and condoms, Hanks looked quizzical for a moment then deadpanned, "Because I am a happily married man for 21 years, I don't even know what a condom is."
McGregor told reporters he is "not a religious person and has no experience in theology" but said: "If I thought the movie was anti-Catholic, I would not have done it."
Favino, a star in Italy appearing in his fourth American film, is a practicing Catholic and told reporters he believes Angels is in line with history in its depiction of violence and abuse in the church. "The idea of the sacred was always seen as connected with the body. In the modern age the body is erased as the place of sin, but this is why Jesus Christ became a man and took on flesh, to bear sins."
Even the movie itself seems to plead for understanding, as an elderly cardinal tells Langdon at story's end, "When you write us up, go gently . . . man is flawed, including all men."