In his mid-20th-century autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton, who eventually became a Trappist monk, describes a trip to Rome before his conversion. Having exhausted himself as a tourist amid the ruins of classical Rome, he began to visit Christian churches and to ponder their artistry, to which he found his soul inexplicably drawn. He was able, he writes, to “catch something of the ancient craftsman’s love of Christ.” Because of his own lack of spiritual formation, however, he “could not decode” the truth of the mosaics. Of course, Merton could have been spared a difficult and lengthy spiritual training if he had only had with him Robert Langdon, the “symbologist” from Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons (AD) — a prequel to The Da Vinci Code (DVC) — now out in theaters.
Although DVC is a better book than AD, the latter is a better film than the former, whose screening at Cannes provoked mock laughter from critics. Ron Howard, director of both, has taken greater liberties with the book this time out. He has cut back on Brown’s dialogue, weakened the conflict between science and religion, and eliminated any hint of a sexual relationship between Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), the particle physicist with whom he teams to try to avert a threat to the Catholic Church. The last omission is particularly welcome, as Brown’s obsession with what he takes to be the Church’s oppressive sexual doctrines mask his own inability to write about sex in a way that is in any respect tantalizing or erotic.
To say that this is a better film than DVC is not to say that it is a good film. The remaining dialogue is quite wooden, the plot manages simultaneously to be preposterous and to take itself quite seriously, while the ending is simply fatuous. The story is this: A pope has just died, and four of the cardinals about to meet to elect a new pope have been kidnapped, purportedly by the ancient secret society of Illuminati, devotees of science bent on taking revenge against their nemesis, the Catholic Church. The Illuminati promise to kill a cardinal each hour and then to release explosive antimatter at the Vatican. Because the Illuminati are leaving enigmatic clues as to their plans, the Vatican enlists the services of Langdon, a Harvard professor.
Like DVC, AD is littered with historical errors masquerading as facts or at least as interpretive insights. In the book, the science-religion debate is no more than a series of clichés, unburdened by any knowledge of history. (For the many ludicrous assertions in the book, see my review here). The film cuts out many of these. The ones that remain are either snide remarks about Galileo or obtuse theories about the conflict between science and the Church. For example, when Vittoria describes antimatter as the “God particle,” Langdon responds solemnly, “You’re talking about the moment of creation.” “Yes, in a way, I am.” No, she’s not. Since the Church teaches that God creates from nothing, the moment of creation would have to be prior to, and of a different order than, the explosion of a pre-existing particle.
One might think that Dan Brown should take a course in metaphysics, but his greater need is for instruction in elementary plot construction and dialogue. His (and Hanks’s) Langdon engages in occasional wry humor; he deadpans that once he finishes his current book project, he will sell at least a dozen copies in the Harvard bookstore. But Hanks is not very gifted at this sort of self-effacing humor, in the mold of a James Bond or Indiana Jones. Moreover, adopting that tone in a consistent manner would mean that the film would have to have a sense of humor about itself.
For the most part, Hanks adopts a magisterial and condescending tone. What Vatican priest would say in all seriousness to an avowed agnostic (Langdon) who happens to be wearing priestly garb, “Would it surprise you to find out that it suits you?” Of course, that inane question is just a set-up for Langdon’s mock disdain, “It would surprise the hell out of me.”
As skeptical as Brown may be about the supernatural claims of religion, he does not hesitate to invest Langdon with superhero capacities of investigation. Langdon can look at a number, say, 503, and determine almost immediately to which page of which volume of which work of Galileo it refers. He can look at the direction of a pointing arm on a statue of an angel, quickly consult a map of Rome, and predict where the next murder will occur. In its later scenes, the film moves into the realm of comic-book fantasy. To this, it tacks on a surprise ending — a final testimony to Langdon’s extraordinary detective skills and an occasion for a Rodney King plea for the combatants of science and religion to just get along.
What purports to be a devastating critique of superstition ends up incapable of violating the pieties of Hollywood, where politically correct, if ill-informed, criticisms of “organized religion” are required, but where no debate is really taken seriously and no conflict is so great that it cannot be resolved by a big budget, a Hollywood star, and some pabulum about mutual respect.
The best thing about the film is its setting. Rome’s geography, architecture, and religious art are on display here. But one doubts that the film’s approach, not just to religion, but to the past itself, will inspire in viewers anything like Thomas Merton’s self-scrutiny and transformation. Instead, Brown presumes and fosters in his audience a hollow and enervating state — what Nietzsche describes as a distinctively modern condition of the soul: that of the tourist.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.