Jewish Journal

‘Angels & Demons’ and filming on location

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 27, 2009 | 11:57 am


Film crews are inconvenient enough in Los Angeles. With frustrating irregularity, they lead to the closure of one-way roads downtown, overwhelm nearby coffee shops and blast bright lights into neighboring apartments—or much more profane sights.

I can’t even imagine the hassle in a city as holy and densely crowded with tourists as Vatican City. So you wouldn’t expect the pope’s permits department to go out of their way to welcome Ron Howard and friends for the filming of “Angels & Demons,” which enters theaters May 15. This pitted the film crew with an unusual predicament.

Via The Telegraph:

The Catholic Church refused to let the movie be filmed in the Vatican or in any of its churches in Rome because of its anger over The Da Vinci Code, which revolves around the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and secretly fathered children. The ban included the filming of church exteriors.

The Vatican said the film, which also stars Ewan McGregor and was adapted from Brown’s best-selling book, was “an offence against God”.

But that left producers with a big problem.

“The ban on filming put us in serious difficulty because we were not able to carry out the photographic surveys necessary to reconstruct the setting,” special effects supervisor, Ryan Cook, told an Italian film magazine.

“So for weeks we sent a team of people who mixed with tourists and took thousands of photos and video footage.” The photos and film helped digital effects specialists recreate computer-generated images of the imposing statues, colonnades and monuments which encircle St Peter’s Square, right down to the shadows they cast on the ground.

“We filled the square with a huge crowd, created mostly with digital figures, some standing still, others moving, clapping their hands or scratching their noses,” Mr Cook told the magazine Ciak.

To be sure, I really enjoyed the Dan Brown book when I read it as a young religion reporter. (Um ... four years ago.) A prequel to “The Da Vinci Code,” it’s religious pulp and a quick read. But the storyline, on par with “South Park’s Fantastic Easter Special,” could hardly be more objectionable to Catholics.

NPR summarized the plot back in 2005:

An attempt to blow up the Vatican as Cardinals gather to elect a new pope, with wholesale murders and rumored test-tube babies as side-plots. Despite the fantastic elements, many visitors say the tour helps them see the plot as a kind of ghost story.

That element stems from the historical devices in the thriller. At the center sits the Illuminati, a Mason-like society founded in Germany in 1776 that, in Brown’s novel, confronted the Inquisition in Rome a century earlier. The story turns on a conflict between science and religion, embodied in symbols hidden in Rome by actual figures, such as sculptor Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini.

Recently, Howard, the film’s director, and Catholic League President Bill Donahue—you remember him—have squared off against each other. Among the pleasantries:

“Howard must be delusional if he thinks Vatican officials are going to like his propaganda—they denied him the right to film on their grounds. Moreover, we know from a Canadian priest who hung out with Howard’s crew last summer in Rome (dressed in civilian clothes) just how much they hate Catholicism. It’s time to stop the lies and come clean.”

All the controversy is bound to be good for the box office.

Like “The Da Vinci Code,” and despite what Brown claimed about that novel, “Angels & Demons” is not a rousing and factual expose of a centuries-old Catholic Church cover up. It’s just a gripping story. Here’s hoping that translates to the big screen. The first attempt wasn’t so successful.

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