'Angels & Demons' tour illuminates the charms of Rome

The faithful stream into St. Peter's Square on Christianity's holiest day, engulfing the Egyptian obelisk that centers the piazza so carefully planned by 17th-century sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Stern despite their colorful striped uniforms, members of the Swiss Guards direct those in the Easter crowd fortunate enough to procure free tickets to chairs, while others stand, waiting for a glimpse of papal pomp.

It's a scene that could be taken straight out of Angels & Demons, author Dan Brown's best-selling prequel to the hugely successful — and highly controversial — novel The Da Vinci Code. Just like that book, Angels & Demons has been made into a movie starring Tom Hanks as symbologist Robert Langdon, which opens today around the world.

Set in Vatican City and Rome, Angels & Demons pits Langdon (paired with an intelligent and attractive female sidekick, Vittoria Vetra) against a modern incarnation of an ancient foe of the Roman Catholic Church, the Illuminati. In the book, Catholics fill St. Peter's Square, awaiting the announcement of Il Conclave, the assembly of cardinals charged with selecting a new pope. Little do they know they are sitting atop a time bomb — and that four cardinals in line for the job are being murdered at sites around Rome.

It's not a tale you'd expect the Catholic Church to embrace. And indeed, several prominent religious leaders — including Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights president Bill Donohue— have come out against the film (although the church itself has not issued a boycott call).

No matter. Catholic indignation did nothing to stop The Da Vinci Code movie from grossing more than $758 million in 2006.

And it did nothing to stop Sony Pictures from shooting key scenes of the movie in Rome, which will only enhance the city's allure for Angels & Demons fans. Among the sites from the book that will be seen on film: the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Castel Sant'Angelo and its Pasetto di Borga, the secret passageway that connects the fortress with the Vatican.

The Vatican itself is not on film, nor are the interiors of two churches prominently featured in the book, Santa Maria del Popolo or Santa Maria della Vittoria; the Rome diocese said last summer that it had banned filming there because of the movie's themes. Reggia di Caserta, an 18th-century royal palace outside Naples and south of Rome, stood in for the Vatican in some scenes (and an elaborate replica was built on a Los Angeles studio lot).

Executive producer Todd Hallowell says the production didn't bother asking permission to film at the Vatican, as the church never grants it. He promises that viewers will feel as if they are within the Vatican, even if the church itself wasn't crazy about the filming.

Says Hallowell: "Given the fact that The Da Vinci Code was perhaps not their favorite movie, the concept of a sequel being shot in their backyard was not the best news they had all week."

Mapping out the book

On the steps outside Santa Maria del Popolo — the site of the book's first element-themed murder, Earth— about 30 people gather for Angels & Demons guided tours. While the operating company, Angelsanddemons.it, bills it as "the official Angels & Demons tour," several tour operators in Rome offer a similar version.

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