VATICAN CITY — Were the makers of Angels and Demons, a movie based on a Dan Brown novel by the same name, seriously hoping to film scenes on the premises of Catholic churches in Rome? If so, they must have been dreaming.
The movie, which is a prequel to Brown’s more commercially successful potboiler, The Da Vinci Code, sees Tom Hanks reprise his role as Harvard professor Robert Langdon.
This time, however, instead of battling a murderous “Opus Dei monk,” Langdon is on a mission to save the Vatican from being blown up by a canister of antimatter. The storyline also includes the murder of four cardinals during a Vatican City conclave to elect a pope.
The entire film is set in Rome, and Sony Pictures applied for permission to film two key scenes on the premises of the churches of Santa Maria del Popolo and Santa Maria della Vittoria. They are two of the 700 or so churches owned by the Italian Interior Ministry and run by Italy’s Church.
During the film, in Santa Maria del Popolo, home of two masterpieces by Caravaggio, a cardinal is buried alive, while in Santa Maria della Vittoria, another is burned.
Speaking to the Register June 19, Father Marco Fibbi, spokesman for the Vicariate of Rome, stressed that any film allowed to be made on church premises must be acceptable to the Church, and it was “never really up for discussion whether Dan Brown’s novels are acceptable.”
The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons are, he said, “not in line with our concept of respect for the Church and the people of the Church.”
Father Fibbi added that it was the Church’s mission and duty to guarantee and protect what is sacred from being profaned, and made offensive to the religion.
Father Fibbi stressed that to describe the vicariate’s decision as a unique ban — as many news reports had done — was very misleading. The Diocese of Rome regularly refuses permission for films to be made on Church property for similar reasons.
“To be able to shoot in a church is exceptional,” he said, “because a church is a place of prayer where the liturgy and the sacraments are celebrated.”
Father Fibbi added that the vicariate had no direct contact with director Ron Howard or Sony Pictures. The request, which was to film on the steps of the churches rather than inside, was made last year to the Ministry of the Interior who, as always happens in these cases, asked the vicariate if they approved the request.
The refusal has only come to light now as the film, due to be released in 2009, was being shot during first half of June. Scenes were allowed to be filmed away from churches, in the square in front of the Pantheon, Piazza del Popolo, Castel Sant’Angelo and Piazza Sant’Agostino.
In contrast to The Da Vinci Code, which cast Opus Dei in a sinister light and passed on many other falsehoods as fact, the effects of this film are likely to be less.
“Throughout the world, the books of Dan Brown are now perceived much clearer and not as products of high culture,” said Manuel Sanchez Hurtado, spokesman for Opus Dei. “At the same time, the book, which is the basis for this film, isn’t new. It’s old and well-known. I think its impact will be minor.”
‘Comedy of Errors’
His views were echoed by Father John Wauck, an Opus Dei priest who set up a popular blog, The Da Vinci Code Catechism, to rebuff the errors of that book.
“Like The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons is a comedy of errors,” he said. “Dan Brown slips on some doctrinal, historical or artistic banana peel on almost every page. He gets things wrong — and never in a way that favors the Church — about the Eucharist, moral teachings, Copernicus, Galileo, the Devil’s Advocate, art and architecture ... the list is endless.”
Father Wauck, who is also a professor of literature at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, said his reaction to this refusal of permission to film was the same as that of the Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli. Paraphrasing Zeffirelli, Father Wauck said: “If someone were to say to you, ‘We’re making a movie that will make your family appear ridiculous and evil, and we’d like to film in your house,’ I think that you would probably say ‘Find another house.’”
Father Wauck also downplayed the effects of the film.
“I doubt that there will be a strong reaction,” he said. “I sense that people are all ‘Dan Browned-out.’” He remembers that once The Da Vinci Code movie appeared in 2006, the interest level for his blog, which had been high, “just fell off the edge of the earth.”
Added Father Wauck: “The million dollar question on everyone’s mind in Rome is: Can Ron Howard and company manage to make another movie as spectacularly bad as The Da Vinci Code?”
The Fear Factor
Another increasingly common question that’s being asked is why Hollywood seems happy defaming the Church, yet will rarely make movies offensive to Islam or other religions.
The same question was put to Sony Pictures, but the studio declined to comment.
For Father Wauck, the answer is simple: fear. “No one is afraid of Catholics,” he said.
“The Angels and Demons crew was filming the other day in Piazza Sant’Agostino, right under the nose of the largest Opus Dei institution in the city,” said Father Wauck. “They didn’t seem too concerned about being waylaid by any assassin monks!”
Edward Pentin writes