Year Released: 2009
Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, Ewan McGregor, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Stellan Skarsgard
(PG-13, 138 min.)
"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect intended us to forgo their use. " Galileo
Don’t let cranky critics scare you away from this rather pleasant diversion. Expect to be awed by the beauty of Rome – the gilded inner courts of the Vatican, the magnificent fountains, the centuries old marble statues still guarding this ancient city -- all of which stand up considerably better than the over-stretched plot.
Over stretched it may be, but not so completely contrived as its predecessor, which began with a dead body, stripped naked and arranged in a parody of Da Vinci’s sketch of man enclosed in a circle. If the murderer had done this, it might have washed, but here it is the victim who has insisted on puzzle piecing his own death, instead of simply writing a cryptic line or two.
The victims in Angels and Demons, and there are plenty, have enough sense to let the paid assassin arrange the grisly details of their deaths. In the case of a Geneva scientist, having his eye wrenched out of its socket is purely practical, to get our villain (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) past the retina scanner security so he can steal the antimatter that has just been harvested. For the Preferiti – the final four in Vatican terms, those in line to replace the Pontiff who has just died – the body mutilations will have symbolic meaning.
And that’s why the Vatican has to call in the scholar they love to hate, Harvard symbologist – who knew there even was such a designation – Dr. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), whose brain is just as active as ever even if his hair is not, thank God. It seems the Illuminati, a secret society dating back to Galileo’s argument with the Church over that little matter of the arrangement of the solar system, is out for a little payback, this time in the form of kidnapping the Preferiti and threatening to kill them off hour by hour, at eight, nine, ten and eleven o’clock, leading to the midnight showstopper, when they will “Illuminate” all of Vatican City, not to mention much of Rome with the highly explosive stolen antimatter appropriately called the “God particle.”
There is little time for Professor Langdon to waste, even if his sidekick is the lovely Italian scientist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), whose presence would at least assure a lurid glance or two, not to mention a few barely disguised double entendres from James Bond, Captain Kirk, or Indiana Jones, the world on the edge of chaos or not. But the chaste Professor Langdon does not seem aroused by secret feminine archives, unless they belong to Mother Church, and here his lusts are fulfilled. However, even here there are feminine wiles, with the air supply cut off in the sealed library, and prized manuscript in hand, Langdon seems doomed to breathe his last unless he can somehow break the impenetrable thick glass bubble slowing snuffing out his life.
The clues, which lead him on the path of illumination from one Bernini Angel to the next, don’t slow him down at all, even if the audience might wish for a slight pause to see if they could get an inkling before he spills it all. It seems director Ron Howard has heeded criticism that his last Dan Brown outing was somewhat talky and plodding, so he revs this 700-page tome into high gear, and we have to hang on for dear life as we rocket around the crowded streets of Rome in a sleek black police car.
But while Professor Langdon identifies the clues as effortlessly as Holmes did tobacco varieties, the stolid personages in the Vatican do provide some obstacles. The Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), a papal assistant in charge of things until a new Pope is chosen, is willing enough to help, but his elders are not so cooperative. Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard) is head of the Swiss Guard, the historical protectors of the Pope, and he is loath to give Dr. Langdon free reign in his territory, especially after the lovely Ms. Vetra rips out a page in a manuscript rather than go through the delay of copying down all relevant information. And he will not abandon his post, midnight antimatter or not.
Equally dedicated to rules and ritual is Cardinal Strauss, played by the wonderful Armin Mueller-Stahl, who mesmerized us in The International, as well as Eastern Promises with his world weary resignation, the reluctant villain with such gravitas. He is in charge of the Papal election, whether the four Preferiti are present or not, and he and his colleagues will remain sealed in their cloister even as a deadly explosion looms. And that eager upstart the Camerlengo is reminded that his special relationship with the Pope has ended with the late pontiff’s demise, that his interim authority is ephemeral at best.
Stodgy and stubborn they may be, steeped in ritual even at their own peril, but these members of the Church, as well as the Church itself, do not come out as villains paranoid to hide past secrets as sometimes was the case in The Da Vinci Code. Langdon even gets his favored manuscript at the end, coupled with a gentle plea from Cardinal Strauss: “Years from now when you write about us, and you will, be gentle,” sounding suspiciously like Deborah Kerr’s admonition to the youth she takes into her arms in Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy, which may be the only humor, intentional or not, in this film.
Which is somewhat of a shame, since the spiraling plot, particularly the almost cartoonish escalations near the end, might go down a bit easier with a wink and a nod.
What with tramping throughout Vatican City and winding up with more than a few corpses on his hands, Professor Langdon takes it in stride when he has to hide out with a few of the not so fresh variety. He escapes the very efficient assassin who has been branding, burning, and mowing down sundry cardinals and police in his wake by wriggling through a metal shaft in the floor of a church.
Of course, he ends up in some ancient catacombs, complete with nicely aged skulls and such. What better dish to accompany our film then, than these Italian wine and coffee dunking cookies named Ossa dei Morti or “Bones of the Dead.” They are usually served on All Saints Day, so if you don’t cook them up now, remember them for Halloween or Day of the Dead next year.
Make sure to visit the recipe site for some pleasantly ghoulish pictures.
Bones of the Dead Cookies
- 3 T softened butter
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp grated lemon rind
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 1/2 C sugar
- 1 egg white
- 2 C flour
- 1/2 C ground almonds
- 1/4 C water
- powdered sugar for dusting
-Cream the butter with vanilla extract, lemon rind, cinnamon, and sugar.
-Beat in the egg white.
-Stir in the flour and ground almonds.
-Mix in the water.
-Form into a ball, wrap and chill for 20 minutes.
-Lightly flour your board. Cut the dough into 4 parts. Working with one at a time, roll into a rope that is approx 1/2 inch thick.
-Cut into 4 inch sections.
-Place on buttered and floured cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
-Let cool. Dust with powdered sugar.
makes about 40 cookies
*Just like real bones, these are very hard cookies, which means they will hold up very well when you dunk them in coffee, or better yet, wine.
Recipe Source: Finding La Dolce Vita