Richard Owen in Rome
It was described as a “phantasmagorical cocktail of inventions”, a “masonic plot” and a “pot pourri of lies”. Now a nervous Vatican is braced for the sequel to The Da Vinci Code and the return of its nemesis, Dan Brown.
Angels & Demons is the latest Brown thriller to be turned into a film, and already the Catholic Church is agonising over how best to respond: to urge the faithful to boycott the film, or to ignore it. The Vatican and the Italian Catholic Church condemned The Da Vinci Code in its book and film version, but some church officials argued that the campaign against it merely boosted the public’s curiosity — and therefore box-office takings — by giving it the “oxygen of publicity”.
The plot of Angels & Demons has all the ingredients to worry the cardinals: a sinister elite known as the Illuminati want to destroy the Vatican using an antimatter bomb made with material stolen from the giant physics experiment at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland.
The film is to be released in Italy on May 13 and in Britain a day later, as Pope Benedict XVI finishes his tour of the Holy Land. A strong reaction is more likely because the anti-Da Vinci campaign was led by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then Archbishop of Genoa and now the Vatican’s Secretary of State — and as such the Pope’s right-hand man.
Gianni Gennari, a leading theologian and a columnist for Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops, called on Catholics to boycott Angels & Demons, accusing the film-makers of “exploiting the Church to swell takings at the box office”. He suggested that the film was part of a “masonic plot to undermine the credibility of the Church”.
Archbishop Velasio De Paolis, the head of the Vatican’s Prefecture for Economic Affairs, said that to dramatise the faults of the film would be a “publicity gift” to the film-makers. “We should not play these people at their own game," he told La Stampa.
Angels & Demons was published before The Da Vinci Code, which was based on the premise that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and had children. The new film will star Tom Hanks, who played the Harvard professor Robert Langdon in the first film, and will have the same director, Ron Howard.
Key scenes are set in the Vatican and in two Roman churches, Santa Maria del Popolo and Santa Maria della Vittoria, but film-makers were denied permission to shoot in any of the locations. Father Marco Fibbi, spokesman for the Diocese of Rome, said: “Normally we read the script but this time it was not necessary; the name Dan Brown was enough.”
Vatican officials said that they had been unable to prevent exterior shots of St Peter’s and the surrounding medieval streets of the Borgo. However, the filmakers are having to use the marble halls and staircases of the former Royal Palace at Caserta near Naples to double as Vatican interiors.
“When a film is about the saints or about stories regarding the church’s artistic values, then we give permission without any doubts,” Father Fibbi said. “But when it is a question of content which does not relate to traditional religious criteria, then our doors are closed.”
Monsignor De Paolis said that Brown had “turned the Gospels upside down to poison the faith. It would be unacceptable to transform churches into film sets so that his blasphemous novels can be made into mendacious films in the name of business.”
As with The Da Vinci Code, scholars have been quick to point out the factual errors in Angels and Demons. These include the claim that the oculus in the domed roof of the Pantheon is known as the “demon’s hole”; and the omission of “son of Lucius” from the famous inscription on the Pantheon’s facade, M. AGRIPPA L. F. COS. TERTIUM FECIT (Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this).
In the book Santa Maria della Vittoria is wrongly located on Piazza Barberini (it is actually some way uphill, on the corner of Via XX Settembre and Largo Santa Susanna). The climactic scene when Langdon battles the villain at Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers takes place in a deserted Piazza Navona, which in reality is lined with bars and cafes and invariably full of tourists and residents (not to mention police) day and night.
Conspiracy of profits
- The Da Vinci Code film has grossed £524,000,000 worldwide since its release in May 2006. The book has sold more than 40 million copies and topped bestseller lists around the world - Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh brought a plagiarism case against The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown in 2006, claiming that he “lifted the central theme” from their non-fiction book about Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. They lost.
- The Da Vinci Code was denounced by the Catholic Church, which launched public debates to debunk what they called the book’s “shameful and unfounded errors”
- Opus Dei, the Catholic sect depicted in The Da Vinci Code as a secret, murderous organisation, denounced its representation and allowed a BBC documentary to be made. The sect’s British wing reported a tenfold increase in membership inquiries in 2006 Source: Times Archive