By Carter B. Horsley
"Angels & Demons" is Ron Howard's
prequel to his enormously successful film adaptation of Dan Brown's
"The Da Vinci Code."
It is a much, much better film.
It is, indeed, a masterpiece of cinemaphotography
and editing with almost every scene being surprisingly and brilliantly
composed at a pace that very fast but stops short of being incomprehensible
as were parts of "The Da Vinci Code."
The production design is absolutely dazzling
given that Mr. Howard was not given permission to photograph in
the Vatican where much of the "action" takes place.
What is truly remarkable is that Howard and
his team have practically reinvented every traditional scene and
shot and not simply by applying a "style." There has
been a tremendous amount of "original" thinking in this
film, which is certainly not a sin. This is not a Citizen Kane
movie of odd angles and tremendous depth of field. There are some
simply staggering shots of the great circular plaza in front of
the Vatican filled it seems with hundreds of thousands of people.
There are quite a few rather grisly scenes that leave little doubt
that evil exists and which are likely to give nightmares to some
three-year-olds. The spectacle and gore, however, are not cheap
thrills and the plot moves along almost without blinking an eye
- this is not show-off time, or can-you-top-this.
There are too many convenient "discoveries"
and "suspicious" disclosures to make the plot complex
and hard to follow but whereas this was a serious problem in "The
Da Vinci Code," here they are almost irrelevant.
This is a motion picture in which the visual
elements are paramount and dazzling and set tremendously high
new standards in the history of film.
Tom Hanks plays the same brilliant historian
and interpretor of symbols and non-Catholic that he did in "The
Da Vinci Code," but he is much better here. The film is based
on a novel of the same name by Mr. Brown that preceded the other
book but the film is set later when the Hanks character, Professor
Robert Landgon, is back at Harvard University where he is approached
by a representative of the Vatican who shows him a note from the
Illuminati, a sect that hates the church because it persecuted
scientists such as Galileo. The Pope has just died and the four
Cardinals believed to be the favored replacement, known as the
preferati, have just been kidnapped. The Illuminati have indicated
that each will be killed on the hour in succession followed by
an explosion of "anti-matter" that was recently stolen
from the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. The
Vatican believes the professor can help track down the kidnappers
because of his great knowledge of the church's history and symbolism.
In Rome, he is introduced to Vittoria Vetra,
played by Ayelet Zurer, who worked on the anti-matter project
at the CERN laboratory and is there to try to defuse it if it
can be found before the battery that holds it in "suspension"
runs down. Ms. Zurer is an attractive brunette who is similar
in type to the lead actress, Audrey Tautou, in "The Da Vinci
Code," although a bit more mature.
Crowds have gathered in St. Peter's great colonnaded
square in anticipation of the naming of a new church leader and
when the Professor arrives and is introduced to Ms. Vetra and
the Carmerlengo, a young priest who was favored by the late pontiff
and is in charge of running the Vatican while the conclave of
cardinals are gathered to elect his successor. The Carmerlengo
is played by Ewan McGregor, a handsome actor who looks a bit too
young for such an important role especially since the cardinals
look more than twice his age, especially Cardinal Strauss, played
by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who is charge of the conclave and who
subsequently appears to be interested in becoming the Pope himself.
There is little time for niceties and history
as the first deadline is rapidly approaching for the murder of
the first kidnapped cardinal and the Professor and Ms. Vetra,
accompanied by the Roman police inspector, played by Pierfrancesco
Favino, and the head of the Vatican's famous Swiss Guard, played
by Stellan Skarsgard, who played one of the villians in Ronin,
a film (see The City Review article) whose
pace and tension are similar to this one.
A frantic and gruesome chase begins and the
Professor's wits are severely challenged as he looks for clues
to the site of the next murder, in part to save the cardinals
in harm's way but also to prevent the destruction of the Vatican
and much of Rome by the explosion of a tiny vial of antimatter
that is conveniently shown on television in an undisclosed location.
The police decide to turn off the power, one neighborhood sector
at a time, in an effort to help pinpoint the location of the vial.
The urgency displayed by the actors in trying
to save the kidnapped cardinals and retrieve the antimatter is
pretty convincing but almost interferes with the spectacular scenery
and sets and the frustration is akin to being given 30 seconds
to run through the Metropolitan Museum of Art to gather a complete
knowledge of all its treasures. Despite the likedety-split editing
and scene changes and action - yes, there is action and a particularly
efficient and very ruthless and mysterious assassin - it works
very, very well. There are some perfunctory asides about science
and religion but the film manages to be rather fair and neither
anti-Catholic nor anti-science. Indeed, it is remarkably sophisticated
about such niceties especially when public disputes over abortion
still rage in the "real" world.
The film actually beings at the CERN laboratory
with an impressive sequence that shows the "antimatter"
being created and its visual depiction ends up being captured
like a "sparkler" in a vial. The sequence does not waste
much time in scientific exposition. The visuals are effectively
impressive although most viewers will forget them during the course
of the film until the denouement which is not quite as dazzling
for its time as the universe-bending pyrotechnical pscyhedelics
of "2001" (see The City Review article)
but pretty memorable Gotterdammerrung, or whatever.
The professor is not the only hero, it works
out, but all is not what it seems....The good news is that he
gets limited access to the Vatican's archives where Dan Brown
and Ron Howard may unearth further mysteries and adventures in