June 26, 2008
In Rome, Wrestling With ‘Angels’
By Elisabetta Povoledo
As Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and the rest of the cast and crew of "Angels and Demons" wrap up filming, the Dan Brown effect is on many minds here.
Brown's last book-turned-movie, "The Da Vinci Code," spawned hordes of tourists, toting well-thumbed novels, traipsing around France, Scotland and elsewhere to unravel its mysteries. Now Romans are wondering if the film of "Angels and Demons," based on the 2000 predecessor to "The Da Vinci Code," will do the same for their city.
Some hope so. Patrizia Prestipino, head of Rome's provincial department of tourism, said, "A film like this could relaunch American tourism," which has dropped by 6 percent this year from the same period last year, largely because of the weak dollar. The story takes place in some of the most magnificent spots in Rome, including the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Piazza del Popolo.
"For us it's like free advertising," Prestipino said. "I say the more films they produce in Rome, the better." Other groups, like the Roman Catholic Church, which sees its authority as being undermined in both Brown best-sellers, have been less receptive.
Requests to film on location in Santa Maria del Popolo and Santa Maria della Vittoria, churches that are homes to paintings by Caravaggio, sculptures by Bernini and a chapel designed by Raphael, were refused. They are also where cardinals are murdered and mutilated in two of the more gruesome scenes in "Angels and Demons."
"We give authorizations to productions that are compatible with religious sentiment," said the Reverend Marco Fibbi, a spokesman for the Rome diocese. "With Dan Brown's books, this problem exists."
Last week the production moved to the Royal Palace in Caserta, just north of Naples, to shoot Vatican interiors. (The Caserta location has also doubled for intergalactic palaces in two of the "Star Wars" prequels.)
"No one ever gets permission to film inside the Vatican," Fibbi explained. "They didn't even make an exception for the miniseries on the life of Pope John Paul II."
Like "The Da Vinci Code,""Angels and Demons" stars Hanks as Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of art history and religious symbology. This time, he finds himself desperately trying to stop the Illuminati, a secret society determined to destroy the Vatican. (Antimatter plays a big role in their plot.)
Filming began in Rome on June 4 and has been fiercely protected. (Sony Pictures turned down requests for interviews with the production team in Rome.) The production even worked under a fake title to throw autograph-seekers off the scent.
"They billed the film as 'Obelisk,' but there were so many people milling about the set that it was pretty clear that it wasn't true," said Federico Guberti, a Roman paparazzo, who was among many staking out Piazza del Popolo when shooting began. Obelisks play a starring role in the plot.
The release date, May 2009, may be nearly a year away, but some entrepreneurs in Rome are already benefiting from the buzz surrounding the making of the movie.
"The hype has started," said Simone Gozzi, the director of Dark Rome tours. Gozzi said his company operated the only official tour linked to "Angels and Demons." ("We registered the trademark in 2004," he said.) The tour attracts an average of 600 clients a month, he said, each paying euro 56, or about $87.
Gozzi has also branched out to include what he called "incentive- building treasure hunts," based on the book, for corporate clients. The movie, he said, can only increase business: "People already choose to come to Rome because of the book."
Matt Kartchner, of Sacramento, California, said that he had two objectives in coming on holiday to Rome: "To see the Colosseum and take an 'Angels and Demons' tour." On a recent morning he took that tour.
Rome experts say the film could correct some of the book's errors. (For example, it places Santa Maria della Vittoria in the wrong piazza.)
"People are constantly saying, Wait a minute, in 'Angels and Demons,' Dan Brown says this or that, and we give a spiel about veracity and then explain that what risks being damaged is the image of Rome," said Paul Bennett, the founder of Context Travel, an upscale tour operator that does not do "Angels and Demons" tours.
Alberto Artioli, the state official responsible for Leonardo's "Last Supper," in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church in Milan, has experienced something similar since Brown turned St. John into Mary Magdalene in "The Da Vinci Code."
Before "The Da Vinci Code," Artioli said, "people would ask us which of the figures is Judas; now people ask which one is the Magdalene. It's a little discouraging to see that people take the interpretation as truth instead of a game."
Mistakes and leaps of imagination aside, Prestipino, Rome's tourism official, said she would like to do something for the film's 2009 release. "It would make sense to have a promotional event where the movie was shot," she said.
But others counter that Rome needs no advertising.
The Reverend Antonio Truda, the parish priest at Santa Maria del Popolo, marvels that anyone would come to his church just because its Chigi Chapel, decorated by Raphael and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is mentioned in a book. The church has masterpieces by Pinturicchio and Caravaggio, and an average of 2,500 people come by each day.
"I hate to be rude, but I really don't think people come to a church like this because of 'Angels and Demons,'" he said.
Truda may want to speak to Colin Glynn-Percy, the director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust in Midlothian, Scotland.
Before "The Da Vinci Code," Rosslyn Chapel averaged 38,000 visitors a year; in 2006, the year the movie was released, 176,000 visitors came. Last year the number dropped to 161,000.
"It's not in the headlines as much," Glynn-Percy said of the book (and movie) that put the chapel on the A list of Scottish tourist attractions, alongside Loch Ness. But it's still up there.
"When people visit Scotland and someone mentions Rosslyn, they'll think that's something to do with 'The Da Vinci Code' and come," he said. "So the effects are continuing."
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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