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Searching for clues in the galleries  

21 October 2016

Stephen Brown sees the latest film version of a Dan Brown novel

Time running out: Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sienna (Felicity Jones) run through the crypt of St Mark’s Basilica, in Venice, in Columbia Pictures’ Inferno

Time running out: Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sienna (Felicity Jones) run through the crypt of St Mark’s Basilica, in Venice, in Columbia Pictures&r...

PROBABLY the most over-used line in films is some permutation of “You’ve only got 24 hours to get the girl/find a solution/prevent an explosion/nail the criminal.” As far as Inferno (Cert. 12A) is concerned, Dr Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) has to perform such clock-beating to save the world from an impending plague.

After exposing skullduggery in the Church (The Da Vinci Code) and power-crazy Freemasonry (Angels and Demons), the novelist Dan Brown’s symbologist is at it again. Much rushing about is involved, all triggered by clues secreted in the Inferno section of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

As this is a film, however, it is more reliant on visual than poetic material. Botticelli’s The Abyss of Hell, based on the Circles of Descent described in the original verses, is what leads Langdon towards solving the puzzle that a mad scientist has set.

Inferno begins in Dante’s home town of Florence. Langdon wakes up from horrendous nightmares of hell with no idea why he’s there in hospital. An assassin’s near-miss concentrates his mind wonderfully. Off he goes in leaps and bounds accompanied by his pretty English doctor (Felicity Jones), gradually realising that the villains lie within the World Health Organization. Why would any of its membership wish to inflict a deadly virus on the universe? Answer: to rectify overpopulation!

Anyway, it is Langdon’s job to discern the secret life of various Renaissance paintings, all of which carry (as well as nods to Dante) clues to how the virus will be disseminated. The resultant mad dash round favourite European art galleries reminds me of the woman who rushed into the Louvre shouting “Where’s the Mona Lisa? I’m double-parked.”

Unlike, the Da Vinci book and film, there is almost no theological reflection, even though Dante’s Comedy has been regarded as St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica set to verse. Some might count that a blessing, given the execrable quality of Brown’s previous ventures into biblical exegesis. You’ll be hard put to discover any of Dante’s treatment of a soul’s journey to God “halfway along our life’s path”. The word “inferno” is just a convenient metaphor in the film, as in the book, for the horrors that would follow the release of this plague-virus.

In the first section of The Divine Comedy, Dante, at low ebb, is rescued by Virgil, whereupon the poet is shown the reality and consequences of sin by witnessing the plight of those separated from God. Langdon does a considerable amount of quite ludicrous world-rescuing, but seemingly without any divine help. Instead, we have another treasure-hunt romp that will, for all I know, give pleasure to its audiences.

I don’t want to be supercilious about this kind of popular culture: it clearly hits the spot for many, in that it propounds a notion that the universe holds mysteries that, for those with eyes to see, are waiting to be revealed. Whether Hollywood cares about that is doubtful. The cynic in me tends to believe that it prefers the theory that nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the general public.


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