VATICAN CITY - On the eve of its world premiere, "Angels and
Demons" was a film in desperate search of controversy.
At a press conference in Rome May 3, director Ron Howard
tried to pick a fight with the Vatican, suggesting that the
long arm of the Holy See was somehow behind unspecified
problems in shooting the film, a pseudo-religious thriller
based in Rome.
The Vatican wasn't taking the bait, though. The only real
criticism in Italy on the eve of the film's premiere came
from a 102-year-old Italian bishop - not exactly the kind of
publicity storm that marketing gurus dream about.
Tom Hanks, the film's star, put his finger on the problem at
the press conference when he was asked if the movie's
marketing people might try to exploit potential conflict with
"Every movie is exploited by the marketing people. There's no
such thing as a movie that is not exploited by the marketing
people," Hanks said.
"The marketing department of any studio would love to be able
to create controversy over their films. But they can't do it
on their own; they need a partner," he said.
The movie, based on a novel by Dan Brown, was set to premiere
in Rome May 4, and was to open in the United States May 15.
It tells the tale of a secret society that kidnaps papal
candidates at the start of a conclave, forcing the Vatican to
turn to the mystery-solving symbologist Robert Langdon,
played by Hanks.
Howard began the press conference with a string of vague
accusations against the Vatican. It seemed, he said, that
"sort of through back channels and so forth, the Vatican had
exerted some influence" to prevent the crews from shooting
scenes in a couple of areas where a particular church was in
"I suppose we could have contested this. We didn't," he said.
He added that a screening of the film - or a reception, he
wasn't quite sure - was moved away from a venue near St.
Peter's Square, "and I suppose the Vatican had some sort of
influence over that."
"Was I surprised? No. Am I a little frustrated by it at
times? Sure," Howard said.
The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi,
declined to comment on Howard's accusations, saying they were
merely designed to generate publicity for the film.
Howard also cited the case of retired Italian Bishop Antonio
Mennonna, 102 years old, who has signed a legal complaint
saying the movie is full of historical inaccuracies and
misrepresentations of Christianity.
Howard said his company had earlier offered to screen the
film for some bishops and others, but that the invitation was
never taken up. In any case, he said, if anyone feels the
film will be offensive to them, they shouldn't see it.
That prompted Hanks, who had tongue in cheek throughout the
press conference, to interject: "No, no, don't even go! Stay
away please! We beg of you!"
Hanks had fun with other inquiries designed to provoke debate
with the church. After a reminder to keep questions germane
to the film, one reporter asked Hanks if he were a spiritual
person and what he thought about the recent controversy over
the pope and condoms.
Hanks responded: "Oh, that's germane to the film. I am a
spiritual man and because I'm happily married for 21 years, I
really don't know what a condom is anymore."
Howard, who directed "The Da Vinci Code," also based on a Dan
Brown novel, said that, whatever church leaders may think of
these books and films, many people find that it gets them
thinking about what they believe. As a result, he said,
church attendance swells and Bible study groups spring up.
"I think that's a positive and constructive thing," he said.
Brown, who made a rare public appearance at the press
conference, said he first got the idea for "Angels and
Demons" while on a tour near the Vatican. The tour guide
mentioned that popes once had to flee along a Roman
passageway to escape their enemies, and that got Brown
thinking about the scientific "enemies" of the Vatican, which
he said "seemed like too good an idea to let go."
In the book "Angels and Demons," modern members of a secret
society called the Illuminati plan to destroy the Vatican
with antimatter. The Illuminati were a group formed in
Bavaria in the late 1700s that historians say survived for
only nine years. Conspiracy buffs have speculated that the
Illuminati exist yet today, secretly controlling world
Brown was asked whether he really believed the Illuminati
"Did they ever?" he said abruptly. Then he added a defense of
his approach to his novels.
"These are fictional stories built around real-world topics.
And these stories, it is my hope, spark a lot of interest and
research on people's own, to figure out what in these stories
is fictional, what is real," he said.
Several weeks ago, Archbishop Velasio De Paolis, president of
the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See,
signaled that the Vatican would not be jumping into a debate
over "Angels and Demons." He said people should be cautious
about "the boomerang effect" of calling for a boycott because
it could translate into unintended publicity for the movie.
He said the Vatican wasn't worried about people of faith
falling for the book and movie's anti-Christian inventions.
The Vatican believes Christians are strong - inoculated by
centuries of persecution and testimonials of faith," he said.