The storyline for Angels & Demons, which stars Tom Hanks and Ewan McGregor, centres on a plot by the Illuminati, a secrety society of intellectuals, who are intent on gaining revenge for a brutal massacre of their predecessors by the Church centuries ago. Although the society once existed, there is no historical evidence that its members were butchered by Catholics.
The Rt Rev Malcolm McMahon, the Bishop of Nottingham, warned that the film could stir up anti-Catholic sentiment.“This is so outlandish, it’s total rubbish,” said Bishop McMahon, who is one of the Church’s most senior bishops. "It’s mischievous to stir up this kind of anti-Catholic sentiment. It’s a gratuitous knocking of the Church and I can’t see any reason for it."Ron Howard, the director of Angels & Demons - expected to become the first blockbuster film of the summer when it is released this month - has fired back that Catholics will enjoy the movie, which is based on a previous novel by The Da Vinci Code’s author, Dan Brown.
His comments will intensify a feud between some prominent Catholic leaders and the Da Vinci Code team over claims that the film smears the Church.
The bishop, who chairs the Church’s Department of Evangelisation and Catechesis, said that Catholics were “getting tired” of the sensational stories and plotlines contained in Brown’s novels and subsequent film adaptations. “I don’t think that Catholics will be interested in seeing this as it’s so far removed from the truth,” he added.
Brown’s book includes a number of other episodes guaranteed to upset the faithful - including a Pope conceiving a child via artificial insemination, thereby circumventing celibacy rules. Sony Pictures has declined to say whether those incidents make it to the movie.
Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in the US, accused Howard and Brown of “smearing the Catholic church with fabulously bogus tales”.
The frenetically outlandish plot of Angels & Demons centres on a race against time by Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Hanks) to thwart a plot by the Illuminati to blow up the cradle of Catholicism with an anti-matter bomb during the conclave to elect a new pope.
But Mr Donahue is exasperated by the way that he says Brown and Howard blend fact, fiction and conspiracy theory.
“I have never dealt with two more disengenous people,” he told The Daily Telegraph. "They wouldn’t dare treat any other religion like this."
Howard responded in forthright fashion, "Let me be clear: neither I nor Angels & Demons are anti-Catholic. And let me be a little controversial: I believe Catholics, including most in the hierarchy of the Church, will enjoy the movie for what it is - an exciting mystery, set in the awe-inspiring beauty of Rome."
The Vatican, which was predictably offended by the Da Vinci Code plot that involved Jesus fathering a child with Mary Magdalene, did not allow Howard to film in its churches or property. “Normally we read the script,” a Vatican spokesman said. "But this time it was not necessary - the name Dan Brown was enough."
There has also been high-level discussion within the Holy See about whether to urge a boycott of the film, according to Italian media reports. It took that step with The Da Vinci Code, but the film enjoyed staggering box office takings of $758 million and some Vatican insiders fear their high-profile opposition backfired.
“Let’s be careful not to play their game… by giving them free publicity,” said Archbishop Velasio De Paolis, the Vatican economics minister, who still made clear his derision for the book as a “manipulation in anti-Christian key of people, events and history”.
But Sony Pictures is not backing away from the controversy and will stage the film’s world premier on the Vatican’s doorstep in Rome on May 4, 10 days before it opens in British cinemas.
“We do not believe the film is anti-Catholic, and we don’t believe the nearly 40 million people worldwide who purchased the novel were confused by the fact that this is a fictional mystery thriller,” said Steve Elzer, the studio’s senior vice-president.
Jack Valero, a spokesman for Opus Dei UK, which is portrayed as a secretive, all-powerful sect in the Da Vinci Code, criticised the new film’s central plot.
“It’s bizarre and a total fabrication,” he said. "I find it offensive, as will other Catholics, but I’m not going to bother spending too much time thinking about it."
But he found some agreement with Sony Pictures. “If anything, this will give us a chance to talk about the Catholic Church and the real things which happen within it,” he said.
The furore can be doing no harm to the prospects for Brown’s eagerly-awaited follow up The Da Vinci Code. His publishers announced this month that the first print run for the September launch of The Lost Symbol will be five million copies - arguably a modest initial total for a sequel to the bestselling hardcover adult novel of all time, with 81 million copies in print worldwide.
So what do you think? Vote and let us know your opinions.