Tom Hanks

Angels, demons & good Catholics

Near the end of Dan Brown's "Angels & Demons," the beautiful scientist Vittoria Vetra clashes with a Vatican official who insists that the day researchers prove how God acted in creation is "the day people stop needing faith." "You mean the day they stop needing the church," she shouts, weaving together the novel's main themes. "But the church is not the only enlightened soul on the planet! We all seek God in different ways. ...

"God is not some omnipotent authority looking down from above, threatening to throw us into a pit of fire if we disobey. God is the energy that flows through the synapses of our nervous system and the chambers of our hearts! God is in all things!"

This long speech is not in the movie based on Brown's first novel about the dashing Harvard professor Robert Langdon, who uses his encyclopedic knowledge of art, religion, history, literature, architecture and archeology to crack through layers of ancient conspiracies that bedevil modern humanity.

This is, however, a speech that -- as a sermon by the author -- offers insights into the worldview behind "Angels & Demons" and the novel that followed it.

That, of course, was "The Da Vinci Code," which ignited a global firestorm because of its depiction of Jesus as a brilliant, charismatic and ultimately misunderstood mortal man who married the brilliant, charismatic and misunderstood Mary Magdalene and had a child with her before his untimely death. This power couple's goal was to create an inclusive, dogma-free, sexually enlightened faith. But, alas, the power-hungry patriarchs who created Christianity -- especially the Roman Catholic Church -- conspired to wreck and bury their work.

Director Ron Howard, who also directed "The Da Vinci Code" movie, admits that large parts of "Angels & Demons" were scrapped and rewritten while turning the prequel into a sequel. Brown gave his blessing since the book's major themes remained intact.

As with "The Da Vinci Code," Howard is convinced that he has not created an anti-Catholic film. His goal, he said, was to raise questions about the nature of faith.

"I believe in God, yes, I do. I'm not a member of a church at the moment," he told reporters, before "Angels & Demons" reached theaters. "There is no personal struggle, for me, between my beliefs and religion. Basically, in a nutshell, I believe that our intelligence, and our curiosity, and our drive to know more are a part of the plan. … But I haven't worked to directly sort of inject my personal spirituality and belief system into the story."

The goal, while spinning another conspiracy-theory thriller, was to focus on "the threat that some in the Vatican may feel about what science represents, what it proposes to say about the origins of the universe and the origins of man," he said.

The plot begins with the sudden death of a "progressive and beloved pope." Then, all hell breaks loose as someone claiming to represent a secret society of freethinkers called the "Illuminati" kidnaps what the book describes as the four "liberal," reform-minded cardinals who were the top candidates to become pope and begins murdering them in public rituals.

As the coup de grace, this mysterious killer has arranged to steal a container of antimatter produced at the CERN Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border. Langdon and Vetra have to rush around -- call it "24" meets a papal conclave -- and find this missing "God particle" stuff before it explodes and vaporizes Vatican City.

By the time it's all over, Langdon and company have solved a papal-murder mystery, saved the enlightened cardinal who ultimately becomes pope and, literally, saved the throne of St. Peter from being captured a madman who is, of course, the story's most articulate conservative Catholic.

This villain "feels that the church is going down the wrong path" as it pursues peace with science and modernity, noted actor Ewan McGregor. "He thinks that the church is becoming watered down and is becoming weaker and weaker. … He's trying to put it back on course."

The key is that "Angels & Demons" offers a Vatican that contains good Catholics and bad Catholics. By the end of the film, said Howard, Langdon has gained a "more complex view of the church."

In the end, there are good Catholics and bad Catholics and Brown and Howard get to determine who is who.

Angels, demons, Hanks & God

To hear Tom Hanks describe him, the hero who broke "The Da Vinci Code" is an academic superman whose knowledge of art, religion, history and philosophy can handle anything. But in his next movie adventure, a Vatican official catches Harvard professor Robert Langdon off guard with this eternal question: "Do you believe in God?"

As a scholar, he says that he will never be able to answer that question. The papal aide then asks what his heart says.

"It tells me that I'm not meant to," says Langdon.

Meanwhile, Hanks does believe in God and, during early press events for the upcoming movie "Angels & Demons," he stressed that he isn't a believer when it comes to conspiracy theories. This puts the superstar in an interesting position since he's playing the hero in a franchise built on the unorthodox visions of novelist Dan Brown -- who is on his way to creating a Universal Unified Field Theory of Vatican Conspiracies.

"Conspiracy theories, I think, are ... conjured up by people who can then sell their books about conspiracy theories," said Hanks, with a shrug. "Anytime someone says, 'You know how they did that? You know what that's about? You know what the conspiracy is?', I automatically tune that person out."

Of course, looming over the May 15 release of this film is the global firestorm created by Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," which opened with the infamous claim: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." The novelist then spun a tale about a charismatic and ultimately human Jesus who married, had a child and tried to create a feminist, sexually liberated faith two millennia before Woodstock.

Brown wrote "Angels & Demons" before "The Da Vinci Code," which became a movie from director Ron Howard. The new film is framed as a sequel, with a tweaked plot that opens with humbled Roman Catholic leaders turning to Langdon for help in unraveling another ancient conspiracy. This time, a shadowy network of freethinkers -- the "Illuminati" -- are seeking revenge by blowing up the Vatican.

Rome wasn't amused by "The Da Vinci Code" and didn't embrace Howard and crew this time, either. The director was denied permission to enter the Holy See or to film key scenes inside the churches of Santa Maria del Popolo and Santa Maria della Vittoria. As a church spokesman told the Daily Telegraph: "Usually we read the script but in this case it wasn't necessary. Just the name Dan Brown was enough."

Howard stressed that his new film includes good Catholic believers as well as bad and that Langdon's character is forced to develop a "more complex view of the church."

"I feel that the good and bad believers have to do with the good and bad in their deeds," said Howard. "Belief is personal and to be respected. But behavior and actions taken on behalf of those beliefs, well that's something that society has to react to when it's bad and applaud when it's good."

For example, Hanks quoted key lines in which the Swiss Guard commander aims this shot at the hero: "My church feeds the hungry and takes care of the needs of the poor. What has your church done? Oh, that's right, Mr. Langdon, you don't have one."

"This is true," noted Hanks, whose complex family history included doses of Catholicism, Mormonism, the Church of the Nazarene and several years as a Bible-toting evangelical teen-ager. "The church does feed the poor. It does take care of the hungry. It heals the sick. I think that the grace of God seems to be not only in the eye of the believer, but also in the hands of the believer."

These days, he said, he still ponders the big questions, while raising a family with his Greek Orthodox wife, actress Rita Wilson. Miracles are everywhere in daily life, he said, and it's the "mystery of it all" that continues to haunt him.

"I must say that when I go to church -- and I do go to church -- I ponder the mystery," he said. "I meditate on the, 'why?' of 'Why people are as they are,' and 'Why bad things happen to good people,' and 'Why good things happen to bad people.' ... The mystery is what I think is, almost, the grand unifying theory of all mankind."