As Angels & Demons opens, the world’s Catholic Cardinals have gathered in Vatican City for the beginning of the Papal Conclave. Here, behind closed doors, they intend to elect the next Pope. Among the crowds of devout Catholics, interested gawkers, and media drones filling St. Peter’s Square, the Cardinals flutter about in their red, red robes with lacy white trimmings. Yes, this centuries-old ritual is still exciting.
At the same, fleeting close-ups reveal that many a Cardinal’s hand clutches a cell phone, the ubiquitous sign of encroaching modern technology. As each Cardinal must leave behind his gadget, to be which is bagged and tagged at the door of the Sistine Chapel, the image is deliberately “jarring” image, the sort of ham-handed juxtaposition for which Ron Howard is well known and sometimes admired.
That said, the friction between past and present is the central theme of Angels & Demons, which hews closely to Dan Brown’s book. The film resurrects the ghost of yet another anti-Catholic secret society, the Illuminati, and pits them against the millennia-thick inertia of Catholic orthodoxy. The DaVinci Code enshrined Harvard symbologist Robert Landgon (Tom Hanks) as a champion of truth, challenging the obfuscations and monomania of the Papacy. In Angels & Demons, he’s back to carry forth that same torch.
Using the Papal election as backdrop, Angels & Demons recalls the 2005 choice of Pope Benedict XVI, which was framed by discussions of the changing demographics of modern Catholicism. Today the bulk of the world’s billion or so self-identified Catholics are from the global South. Four years ago, many wondered if the Vatican would reflect this new reality by electing a Cardinal from Africa, Asia or South America, or if they would maintain the Eurocentrism of Catholic governance. The answer, of course, was the latter — the Holy See elected the strong traditionalist Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, just now ending a visit to Israel that has re-evoked concerns about his past and that of the church.
The changing relevance of Papal leadership informs the goings-on in Angels & Demons. But rather than questioning whether such leadership reflects the new demographics of faithful or addresses their concerns, the film challenges the church’s ongoing anti-science fundamentalism — a good old-fashioned battleground. It also seems occasionally distracted from its own focus. Just as the Illuminati launch their endgame attack on the Papacy, Cardinal Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and the Commander of the Swiss Guard (Stellan Skarsgard) quibble with Langdon and Italian physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) about whether to interrupt the Papal Conclave and inform the world press of the troubles in Vatican City.
Such confession would also require the Vatican to divulge the reason for the Illuminati’s attack, that is, the church’s own ongoing efforts to suppress the spread of science and rationalism. As this argument progresses, the film spills copious amounts of “historical” detail (some made up, like “La Purga of 1668,” a Papal assassination of key Illuminati that never took place) through the oracle of Robert Langdon.
Here Angels & Demons is weighed down by the same insufferable preachiness as its predecessor. A Harvard professor is an unlikely candidate for the hero of a summer blockbuster, and Angels & Demons demonstrates exactly why. The film is filled with talk, talk, talk, interrupted all too infrequently by all too brief action sequences. Sure, the historical minutiae are interesting, as is wondering if these details are accurate, and even doing a bit of one’s own post-viewing research to confirm or reject them, but no one likes to be lectured to for over two hours, no matter how interesting the topic.
And yet despite all these professorial wanderings, Angels & Demons does broach some contemporary political concerns. Upon arriving at the Vatican, and walking down the Bernini colonnade at St. Peter’s, Langdon comments on the strategically placed fig leaves on a phalanx of male nudes. He asserts that Pope Pius IX, offended by the possibly lustful influence of the visible penises, went hacking away at the marbles, and that the leaves were added by a later Pope. Whether historically accurate or not, the anecdote quickly reminds us of the fact of John Ashcroft’s out-of-touch turn as U.S. Attorney General, when the devout Christian had the sculpture of Justice in the Department of Justice draped in a curtain because he found her nude breasts offensive.
Angels & Demons is at its best when reminding us of the conflicts that arise when science and religion mix, and wondering whether such tensions can be rectified. After eight years of Bush administration, Christian fundamentalism, and anti-science policy, we in the U.S. have direct experience with the disastrous effects of religion-driven state power. HIV transmission and infection rates and teen pregnancy rates have risen despite the “faith-based” institutionalization of abstinence only sex education. And while not overtly motivated by religious tenets, Bush’s antipathy to science resulted in the gutting of environmental protections of all sorts.
Time and administrations change, however. And so far Barack Obama has rejected such religious dogmatism in governance. The questionAngels & Demons raises is whether Catholicism, or Christianity, or any of the world’s major religions, can maintain its relevance to contemporary realities and leave behind centuries of anti-science zealotry.