Monday, August 24, 2009

The Catholic Church in Film

by Jerome Marson

The Catholic Church has been the focus of many films throughout the last century, both fictional and factual, and often a mixture of the two. The two films I will critically review are The Name of the Rose and Angels and Demons. Both of the films to be analysed are film adaptions of novels, the former being the Italian Il nome della rosa by Umberto Eco in 1980 whilst the latter is the Dan Brown novel from the year 2000. For the purposes of the review I will be concerning myself with the films only, as differences between the film and literary mediums require that certain aspects be altered for audiences, mainly in this instance the plot.

The Name of the Rose centres around the curious case of murders in a Benedictine monastery in 14th century. William of Baskerville (Sean Connery), a Franciscan monk and well-known academic scholar, and his apprentice Adso (Christian Slater) arrive to query the situation at the Abbot’s wishes. As their investigations begin, William determines that there is something more to the case, as other deaths occur and situations where ‘accidents’ endanger him increase. The inquisition arrive, lead by the infamous Bernado Gui, (F. Murray Abraham) as many of the congregation believe the work of the devil is at hand. William’s analytical mind does not accept this theory and concludes that each death has been concerned with a long-believed lost book of Aristotle, one discussing the benefits of comedy.

After the inquisition sentences Salvatore the madman hunchback (Ron Perlman) and two others to burn upon stakes for accusations of heresy, William and Adso discover a forbidden library in which one of the oldest patrons confines the books which he thinks are ‘dangerous’ to Christianity. He believes that comedy is the work of the devil and reveals that he was the murderer. Rather than have the truth be revealed, the elderly monk sets the library alight with a candle flame killing himself and the books, nevertheless William and Adso escape and moved on.

The Name of the Rose moves slowly but it suits the mystery/crime/drama genre and is a faithful depiction of medieval life made believable by the setting, a dreary and cold monastery with all aspects of living covered; the script, which portrays the intellectual debates of the time and the willingness to blame heresy; and some of the actors, Sean Connery, Ron Perlman, and F. Murray Abraham embody their characters though some of the supporting cast draws away from the authenticity.

My other film, Angels and Demons, begins with a revolution in science, CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, creates three containers of anti-matter in an experiment. Through the death of a scientist, one of the containers is stolen. Meanwhile in Vatican City, the Pope has died and a successor must be chosen. Before the cardinals can enter conclave, the four favourites (titled ‘preferiti’) are kidnapped and a threat is issued to the Swiss Guard by the Illuminati, a secret society which the Church disbanded by force 400 years ago, that one will die each hour and finally at midnight the anti-matter container will explode, destroying Vatican City, unless a new Pope is not elected. The Swiss Guard and the Vatican issue a call for help from Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a symbologist with an array of esoteric knowledge and secret society information. Deriving clues, Langdon succeeds in determining where the preferiti will be killed, yet they arrive on the scene just after, or during, the death of the cardinals, but finally saving the fourth one.

It is revealed that the killer was hired from within the Catholic Church and after the canister is found the Camerlengo (Ewan Macgregor) saves the day by flying a helicopter into the sky to detonate it. Surviving this, the Cardinals wish to break tradition and make him the new pope due to the bravery he showed for Catholicism, however Langdon discovers that it was the Camerlengo who hired the killer, poisoned the recently deceased Pope (his father), and killed the scientist to steal the anti-matter, all because he believed that the Church alone should control the moral creed of the Catholic faith, not science. After the Cardinals expel him, he sets himself alight and burns to death and a new Pope is chosen.

Angels and Demons delivers a fast paced thriller and, though a fictional story, it creates the idea that such an occurrence is quite possible. It harnesses the modern intrigue (or paranoia) of conspiracy theories and secret societies but provides an explanation that despite leaving viewers with some extra questions (what else is in the Vatican Secret Archives?) does end with all ties tied. The actors enhance the film extraordinarily, with Ewan MacGregor executing a brilliant Camerlengo, Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd as the head of the Swiss Guard, and Tom Hanks as the academic professor. I certainly couldn’t fault any of the preferiti or the Cardinals, not even thinking until afterwards that they were just actors. The film could have done without the character of Vittoria Vetra, the token attached sidekick to Langdon, in my opinion, as I did not entirely believe that a scientist important enough to be a essential part of CERN would follow a symbologist around Italy on a whim, though Langdon does need someone to explain his theories to for the audience to follow.

Whilst the two films are set 600 years apart, they both have at their core the teachings and faith of the Catholic Church. Both films are exemplary illustrations of the weakness of humans, as such a large institution as the Church can be corrupted by individuals, such as the monk in The Name of the Rose, or the Camerlengo in Angels and Demons. Each of these individuals have their own interpretation of scripture or the messages, aims and future of the Church, the monk believing that “laughter kills fear, and without fear there can be no faith because without fear of the Devil, there is no more need of God”1, whilst the Camerlengo states “if science is allowed to claim the power of creation, what is left for God?” 2 When they are discovered, both choose to take their own lives through flame believing that martyrdom awaits.

Similarly both the perpetrators use a known enemy of the Church to take blame for events, in The Name of the Rose, the rival is no other than heresy itself, associates of the devil and witchcraft, and in Angels and Demons the Illuminati are considered the adversary. The difference between these two however, is that heresy was a very real part of history and the Church took matters regarding this exceptionally seriously, whilst the Illuminati, from historical sources, were a secret society of intellectuals that was ordered to be disbanded in the 18th century; a brief mention as opposed to hundreds of years with heresy. It must be stated, however, that the Illuminati did not actually ‘return’ in the film, but was merely a clever conception of the Camerlengo to incite fear from an unknown enemy.

One would attain from these depictions I’m sure a negative view of the Catholic Church, however there are certainly the characters that redeem and exemplify the Catholic faith. William and the recently deceased Pope show open mindedness, forgiveness, and humanity, and they adapt the messages and morals they are faced with to their social climate, whilst the devout followers of the rules, included here is the inquisitor from The Name of the Rose, are unable to move beyond their own walls. Both films effectively display the weaknesses in human constructs of religion, whilst one is true and the other fictitious they both create balanced movies featuring varied views.

1. Warner Home Video (2006)The Name of the Rose, DVD

2. Sony Pictures (2009) Angels and Demons, Theatrical Release

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