Angels and Demons | 2009
After the portentous film of The Da Vinci Code, one important lesson has been learned – never take your MacGuffin too seriously. But since the plot sees a sinister organisation threatening to blow up the Vatican with a glass jar full of anti-matter kept in check by the battery from a Casio watch, that was hardly an option.
Owing less to Galileo and Bernini, more to Dr Phibes and The Riddler, Angels And Demons succeeds as a fast-paced fun ride, and any supposed insult to the church fades into insignificance alongside insults to scientists, art historians, geographers and screenwriting students who’ve learned not to lumber characters with chunks of unspeakable exposition.
Needless to say, that is not the real ‘Vatican’. Nor is it the real ‘Harvard’, where the Professor of Symbology (a post which seems to be filled by anyone able to complete the local paper’s backpage crossword) is approached by a Papal representative. Despite the CGI background, it’s Royce Hall University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on the city’s Westside. Built in 1929, in the Romanesque Revival style (it’s modelled after the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan), the campus has been seen in numerous films.
The ‘Sistine Chapel’ was, obviously, recreated in the studio (as were most of the Roman interiors), but if you saw Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace you might recognise the ‘Vatican’s’ marble staircases and corridors – they were seen as Queen Amidala’s ‘Theed Palace’ on ‘Naboo’. The grandiose interior is the Reggia di Caserta (Royal Palace of Caserta), Piazza Carlo III, in Caserta, about 15 miles north of Naples. The huge Baroque palace, built in 1752, for King Charles III of Naples to rival France’s Versailles, is open to visitors. It stood in for the ‘Vatican’ again in JJ Abrams' Mission: Impossible 3, and in 1970 was seen as the ‘Parisian’ palace of Louis XVIII (Orson Welles) in Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic Waterloo, with Rod Steiger as Napoleon.
The rest of the plot focuses on Rome, with Prof Langdon (Tom Hanks) tracking down obscure references to the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – supposedly left by the sculptor Bernini.
The Illuminatus pathway starts at the tomb of painter Raphael, in the Pantheon, on the Piazza della Rotonda, bang in the historic centre of the city. Amazingly, the Pantheon dates from around 125AD, and is one of the most influential buildings ever, topped by a marvel of structural engineering – the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. Originally built as a temple to the Roman gods, since the 7th century it’s been a Roman Catholic church. The Pantheon is also featured in Peter Greenaway’s quirky The Belly Of An Architect.
Langdon deduces that the first step – earth – leads north, to another location seen in Greenaway’s film, the Piazza del Popolo. Although the main entrance to the piazza is from the via del Corso between the twin churches of Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Langdon’s destination is Santa Maria del Popolo on the north side, which contains Bernini’s Habakkuk and the Angel in the Chigi Chapel. It’s in the crypt of the church (which, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you was recreated in the studio) that he discovers the first cardinal, his mouth crammed with soil. Until 1826, the Piazza del Popolo was in fact used for public executions.
From here, there’s cinema fakery as the ‘air’ trail leads to Vatican City – way west, across the Tiber, to St Peter’s Square, in front of the Basilica of St Peter, where Langdon discovers another of those easily-opened manhole covers that only a trained Symbologist can recognise. Refused permission to film within Vatican City, the scene mixes a huge set with more digital imagery. The marker is is the West Ponente wind rose tile, located on the west side of the base of the Vatican obelisk in the center of the square .
The angel’s breath whizzes us back east across the city, to the 17th century Santa Maria della Vittoria, via XX Settembre at Largo Santa Susanna, which houses one of the finest statues in Rome, if not the world – Bernini’s astonishing Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, in the Cornaro Chapel. The statue depicts an experience described by Saint Teresa of Avila, in innocently pre-Freudian times, “In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one can not possibly wish it to cease...”
The plot interprets this as the third element – fire – and, sure enough, this is where Langdon discovers smoky bar-b-cued cardinal.
The fourth element is represented by Bernini’s dramatic Fountain of the Four Rivers, in Piazza Navona, not too far from the starting place, the Pantheon, where, after the cops have been furtively shot, the fourth cardinal is unceremoniously dumped into the water. The fountain, erected in 1651, depicts allegories of the four great rivers in the four continents recognised by Renaissance geographers: the Nile in Africa, Ganges in Asia, Danube in Europe, and Río de la Plata in America.
The final clue reveals that the ‘Chapel of the Illuminati’ is located in Castel Sant Angelo, on the Tiber’s west bank, not far from the Vatican (to which it’s supposedly linked by a secret underground tunnel). Commissioned by the Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family, the building has seen service as a fortress and castle, and is now a museum. On the top floor, there’s a terrace with spectacular views over the city (and opera buffs will know that it is from here that Puccini’s Tosca leapt to her death).