More to Rome than Angels & Demons: A true story

ELIZABETH LEV

Despite every attempt to stir controversy and fan fires of moral outrage, Ron Howard’s film adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons enjoyed a peaceful world premiere May 4.

The Italian press was more irate over the one-and-a-half hour delay in starting the film while the cast and author did red carpet interviews, than anything else. Most European journalists dubbed it "Americanata" -- silly stuff Americans enjoy, like McDonalds.

The movie had its worldwide release May 13, and although it is a fast-paced, action-packed popcorn movie with terrific set design and beautiful filming of the Eternal City, it requires more attention and reflection than the usual escapist fare -- for the spectacular explosions and high-speed chases are woven together by a web of misinformation.

Fortunately, Howard's adrenaline-fueled direction doesn't leave much time to dwell on the absurd dialogue, so the result is similar to third-rate tours of Rome: rushing from monument to monument propelled by tales of scandal backed by little or no historical accuracy.

The protagonist, Harvard professor Robert Langdon, played by Tom Hanks, punctuates his mad dashes with misinformation ranging from the alleged 19th-century destruction of the statues in the Pantheon to the idea that every work of religious art in Rome was a papal commission.

Howard willingly cooperates in Hollywood's love for negative Catholic stereotypes by filming cardinals handing over packs of cigarettes before walking into the Sistine chapel and portraying the Vatican Secret Archives like just another vault of a huge investment bank. Alongside the ancient manuscripts, he places artwork and jewels as if the documents of the Vatican are just some form of financial collateral, instead of a lovingly preserved historical record.

The line that finally got under my skin came at the end of the movie when the wise cardinal declares to Langdon that "this [Christianity] is a flawed religion." The martyrs who really were tortured and killed in this city (unlike the spurious murder of scientists laid at the Vatican's door in the film) did not offer their lives for a "flawed religion," but for the perfect and true revelation of Christ himself. Of course, what else should I have expected from the gang who brought us a married Jesus?

I spent almost two years with the production crew of Angels and Demons, getting to know Ron Howard and the heads of the production staff fairly well. They were fascinated by the Vatican to the point where moments of respect for the Church shine forth in the movie, despite the unsympathetic agenda of the story. Having visited the scavi and seen the tomb of St. Peter, Ron Howard abandoned his earlier idea of having the anti-matter bomb, the pivotal plot device, resting among the bones of St. Peter, to avoid having Robert Langdon's hands disturb the resting place of the first Pope.

So how does one deal with the demons among the angels? For one, avoid feeding controversy about the film.

Howard is narrating Church history on its own turf. His characters are but temporal tourists in the Eternal City; they say one thing, the city itself says something completely different.

Dan Brown's plot device of the Path of Illumination, a line traced by renegade scientists through the city via the art of Bernini, is but a cheap tinsel-town repackaging of the itinerary of Salvation forged through Rome by 2,000 years of popes, martyrs and pilgrims.

Dan Brown's Illuminati, meaning the enlightened ones, are but a flickering match in the face of Christ, the Light. The movie concerns itself with shedding light on a mystery tale; Rome illuminates the mystery of the Incarnation. If man had not encountered God through the person of Jesus Christ there would be no great patrimony of art to be so lovingly filmed by Ron Howard.

Now, the author, actors and director deflect all criticism with the disclaimer that it is just a work of fiction, reminding people that no one is forced to see the film. But that only works so far. What if the storyline went like this: A group of Jewish extremists fake the Holocaust as a ploy to obtain a home state. For the past 60 years they have been torturing and killing anyone who knows the truth. Poignant filming of the Concentration Camps is countered by statements from the handsome protagonist that nothing really happened here; it was all made up.

Instead of a sincere effort to discover the truth, this kind of advocacy scholarship ransacks the past to find bits and pieces of information to support whatever theory they hope to advance.

No "just fiction" disclaimer would justify the hurt caused by such a story. The question becomes how much an artist is accountable for the psychological damage wrought by his work. When Caravaggio's works were too upsetting or offensive to people, they were pulled from the public arena.

Furthermore, every time Dan Brown refers to his "research," I frankly have to stifle laughter. His mistakes are so glaring and sloppy that one wonders how he managed to write a paper to complete his work for a Bachelors of Arts degree.

But sadly enough, Brown has relied on nonfiction writers to construct his conspiracy theories.

Perhaps it is time for the Cassius and Brutus of scholarship to be recognized. What Elaine Pagels' pseudo-scientific Holy Blood Holy Grail did for the Da Vinci Code, Wesleyan history professor William Manchester did for Angels and Demons with his noxious little historical novelette, A World Lit Only by Fire.

Ron Howard mentioned to me that the book had "changed the way he viewed history," and on another occasion, Tom Hanks said he had prepared for the role by reading the same book.

But this nonfiction "history book," preceded by a disclaimer that it is not intended for scholars, has barely a footnote in its 296 pages of distortions and sensationalism. The account jumps from one end of Europe to another as if the entire continent moved in lock step through history. As critical distinctions are brushed aside, sweeping stereotypical statements make it clear where Professor Robert Langdon gets his taste for unsubstantiated pontificating.

Somewhere in there, "scholars" like Elaine Pagels and William Manchester (as well as many others) changed the discipline of history without notifying the rest of us. Instead of a sincere effort to discover the truth, this kind of advocacy scholarship ransacks the past to find bits and pieces of information to support whatever theory they hope to advance.

Angels and Demons offers an interesting opportunity. While viewers reel at the breathtaking art and majesty of the Eternal City, there is a golden moment for Catholics to tell Rome's real story, which is more fascinating than any fiction.


 


 

700-Year Freshness

A new exhibition in Rome offers a pleasant antidote to Dan Brown's Monty Pythonesque view of history by highlighting the cosmopolitan world of the 1300s.

Titled "Giotto nel 1300," and housed in the Risorgimento Museums of the Victor Emmanuel Monument, this arrangement of about 70 works provides eloquent visual testimony to a lively intellectual age. It will run until June 29, 2009.

Giotto was born in 1266 in a little town outside Florence called Vicchio nel Mugello. He grew up in a world of flourishing little city-states in Italy supported by a large wealthy merchant class. The universities were full and due to the influence of the newly founded Dominicans, studies of the antique were tempered with a clear exposition of the faith. But perhaps most importantly for Giotto, the Franciscans had just been established and were spreading like wildfire throughout Europe.

Giotto was a contemporary and friend of Dante; both men shared a desire to use their artistic talent to spread a message of Christian conversion. With Dante in words and Giotto in pictures, the story of salvation has rarely had it so good.

The show focuses on areas of Italy visited by Giotto during his 71-year lifetime and the indelible impression he left on art wherever he traveled. While there are only 19 works by Giotto and his studio (impressive given the age and the delicacy of the works), the rest of the show brings together the masters of each region who in one way or another benefitted from the extraordinary genius of the Florentine painter.

Tuscany, Umbria, Veneto, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, Lazio and Campania all felt the direct ripples of Giotto's presence.

His images of the infant Jesus or the lifeless crucified Christ, highlighted the humanity of Jesus, and the dignity conferred on man by the Incarnation.

Despite a lack of Internet or airplanes, people of this age frequently traveled long distances and exchanged information -- thousands of pilgrims had seen the Holy Land, Compostela in Spain, and numerous centers in Italy.

Giotto's art reflected this sophisticated world. His paintings ranged from gothic spires from Northern Europe to stone entablatures from Rome, and he holds the distinction of being the first to paint Africans in Western art.

The highlight of the show is Giotto's polyptich from the Florence cathedral. Florentine patron saints, Zenobius, Reparata and John the Baptist, all look from their compartments toward the Madonna and Child. Giotto shows an astonishing adroitness in drawing the body of an infant under the loose transparent robe of Christ. He also captures the warm affection between the mother and child rendering this ancient image in a fresh new light.

The Franciscans erupted into the 13th century with a fixed vision of Christ's humanity and a vivid interest in the created world. This new spiritual focus found expression in their preaching, but it also deeply affected the world of the arts.

Giotto was in many ways the illustrator of this Christian form of humanism. His images of the infant Jesus or the lifeless crucified Christ, highlighted the humanity of Jesus, and the dignity conferred on man by the Incarnation. This emphasis on the humanity of Christ and the historical events of his life were the true precursors of Renaissance art.

This startling new view of the world through the eyes of Giotto spread quickly throughout Italy. The exhibit features works by Giotto's own students such as Bernardo Gaddi as well as Sienese Simone Martini, Fra Jacopo Turriti in Rome and a host of Neapolitan painters who soon adopted elements of his style.

These works, still fresh and moving 700 years later, reflect a world not "lit only by fire" but "on fire" with the evangelizing spirit that manifested itself in everything from Dante's Divine Comedy to the extraordinary frescos of Giotto and his peers.


 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Elizabeth Lev. "More to Rome than Angels & Demons: A true story." Zenit (May 14, 2009).

ZENIT is an International News Agency based in Rome whose mission is to provide objective and professional coverage of events, documents and issues emanating from or concerning the Catholic Church for a worldwide audience, especially the media.

Reprinted with permission from Zenit - News from Rome. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Lev's road to reversion began with Dante, passed through Caravaggio and ended with Michelangelo. After studying Renaissance art at University of Chicago and doing graduate work at University of Bologna in Baroque art, in 1996 she moved to Rome, where the intersection of the sacred and the beautiful opened her eyes to greater and deeper meaning in art. Elizabeth presently teaches art history at Duquesne University's Italian campus, including a survey of Christian art in Rome, a course of her own design. She also writes for Inside the Vatican and is a regular contributor to Zenit news agency. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.

Copyright © 2009 Zenit




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