Saturday, February 9, 2013

Angels and Demons: A Surprisingly Decent Movie

I went to see the movie version of The Da Vinci Code when it came out. It was dire beyond all words, dire beyond all comprehension. It sank right to the bottom of my movie-going barrel, alongside other sediment like Dr. Doolittle 2, Resident Evil: Apocalypse and The Fantastic Four.

So I was surprised when I went to see the sequel Angels and Demons in the cinema, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

In fact, I more than enjoyed it; it's one of those movies that linger in your mind. Of course, I don't mean that I found myself musing over its finer plot points and thematic depths. The story barely made more sense than the story of The Da Vinci Code (it could hardly have been that ridiculous, after all). There was no great profundity or characterization or dialogue, though the dialogue actually isn't bad.

But, golly, did it look good. And that is crucial for a movie. I am literal-minded enough to think that you go to see a movie and that the big screen deserves a spectacle that positively makes love to the eyes. Movies that seem to spurn the visual element by using drab or downright ugly sets are an abomination. And nobody could accuse Angels and Demons of that.

It might be, gentle reader, that you are unfamiliar with the plot. Well, it's a pretty standard one; the ancient secret society the Illuminati, sworn enemies of the Catholic Church due to the Church's well-known Persecution of Science, have stolen a container of antimatter from the CERN laboratory, and are going to detonate it in the Vatican at midnight. That'll show 'em. All this happens against the background of a Papal Conclave. Tom Hanks, who is playing a Harvard symbologist, is called in to decipher the clues that the Illumaniti have sportingly scattered about the place. Ewan McGregor, sporting an impressive Irish accent, is an idealistic priest of the Papal household, who at one point passionately declares to the cardinals of the Conclave that religion and science need not be enemies. They seem rather taken aback. Obviously they've never read Fides et Ratio by JPII.

It's all the merest nonsense, of course, but it looks a treat, and the plot just about makes enough sense to keep you watching. The movie makes the most of all the Church's traditions and eye candy-- the Swiss Guard, the cathedrals, the sculptures, the robes, the crowds in St. Peter's Square, the fountains, all that stuff. Then it throws in some high-tech gadgetry and some security guys in fancy suits and cars to provide an eye-catching contrast. (Ron Howard didn't get permission to film in the Vatican, but you'd never guessed the movie wasn't shot there.)

It was particular images that stuck in my mind. One early scene shows Tom Hanks's character swimming in the Harvard swimming pool. A well-dressed detective from the Vatican enters to speak with him. One particular shot shows Tom Hanks swimming and the detective, elegantly suited and with a stately and self-important gait, walking in pace with him along the side of the pool. It's a great shot; swimming pool water, with its rich colour and its luminous ripples, always looks good on camera, and the contrast between the swimmer and the man in the suit is a striking one. Whenever I'm in the swimming pool, that image pops into my head. I love movie moments like that, that enrich our everyday lives.

Watching this film makes me wonder about star quality, too. Tom Hanks isn't sensationally handsome but there is something so likeable about his manner that I actually enjoy looking at him. Even the way he talks and his facial gestures are strangely personable. I feel a bit odd admitting that, but there you go.

Dan Brown has come under a lot of fire for all the misinformation about Catholicism that he has circulated. (Of course, it was already there before him, but he certainly popularised it.) I understand why people would get angry with him about this, but personally I find his work (as far as I know it, never having read his books) rather benign. It's not anti-religious or anti-Catholic (as he himself insists) and, in this modern world, one can't help feeling that whoever is not against God is for him.

This is something I feel more and more. There is such an enormous difference between an agnostic and an atheist; and such a chasm between an agnostic who is respectful of religion and an agnostic who is hostile to it. Closing yourself to the transcendental is such a radical and (I would say) dehumanizing thing to do that I find myself strangely spooked and shook up by those who have done so. I can't help feeling that the step from agnosticism to stark unbelief is the most terrible, forlorn step anybody can take; and not so much because of any consequences that might flow from it as from the very nature of the choice.

For that reason I relish this snatch of dialogue from the film:

Ewan McGregor: Do you believe in God, sir?
Tom Hanks: Father, I simply believe that religion...
EM: I did not ask if you believe what man says about God. I asked if you believe in God.
TH: I'm an academic. My mind tells me I will never understand God.
EM: And your heart?
TH: Tells me I'm not meant to. Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive.

For some reason, as well as that shot in the swimming pool, that line-- "Faith is a gift I have yet to receive"-- has been reverberating in my memory for weeks, although it's years since I saw the film, and prompted me to seek it out again. I think that, as long as a man (or a society) thinks of faith as a "gift that I have yet to receive" the world remains a place full of possibility, potential meaning, and unguessed depths. But once a man (or a society) declares that this is it, when even the possibility of the divine is repudiated, then the freedom is drained from the air and the majesty is filched from the sun and the lustre is lost from the eye. Everything is hideously shrunk, stopped-up, foreshortened, trivialized. This thought puts me in mind of Christ's mysterious assertion that whoever blasphemed against the Holy Spirit would not be forgiven. And that is another reason why I enjoy Angels and Demons; because it remains on the right side of that terrible line that our society seems increasingly poised to step over.

P.S. One thing I find especially ironic about the film, though on a rather trivial matter, is that Tom Hanks's character at one point complains about a "great castration" that Pope Pius IX supposedly performed upon the Vatican's male nude statues. "He took a hammer and chisel and unmanned hundreds of these statues". (This seems to be the purest rubbish.) A member of the Vatican Police, on hearing this, asks Tom Hanks if he is anti-Catholic." "No", he says. "I'm anti-vandalism". He then spends the rest of the film essentially smashing up most of the treasure of the Vatican; not deliberately, of course, but even though it all happens in the course of the film's action, he shows a remarkable lack of concern about it. At one point, his companion rips a page from an impossibly rare book in the Vatican Archives, and he shrugs and says "What the heck" (or something like that). For a scholar, this would be unthinkable.

Why do old and precious and historical things always get smashed up in action movies? Do the directors think we enjoy this? I always wince, even though I know it's all foam and plastic and pixels.

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