When I heard that the audience at the Cannes Film Festival laughed derisively during the first screening of Ron Howard’s “The Da Vinci Code,” I wondered if the film was going to be the “Heaven’s Gate” of the new millennium. The biggest complaint the Cannes critics had with the film seemed to be Howard’s slavish devotion to the Dan Brown book, but since the book has now sold over 40 million copies, I can't say I'm surprised that the director tried to be faithful to the novel. I remember reading about the cries of heresy when David O. Selznick fiddled with the events in Scarlett O’Hara’s life in “Gone With the Wind.” Fanatical readers can be a powerful lobby and who wants to alienate a built-in audience that is that enormous?
Most of the negative reviews of “The Da Vinci Code” decried the level of exposition required to cram all the plot elements into two and a half hours. This is what worried me the most when Kendall and I decided to head over to the Cinerama Dome the other day to see this film. Nothing makes me crazier than movies that insult the intelligence of the audience by over-explaining what’s happening at every moment. I think that’s why I’m such a big fan of European films—many of them are open to interpretation and more often than not the closing credits start rolling long before the plot is neatly tied up.
After reading some of the reviews, I imagined “The Da Vinci Code” would be full of the awkward exposition that is popular on daytime soap operas, the kind where the characters constantly repeat important points they think viewers need to know: “Hello, Erica. I hear that your daughter, who came out as a lesbian several years ago and then was brutally raped by your former business partner but decided to go through with her pregnancy and raise her now murdered rapist’s child only to have her baby stolen from her during childbirth and was only reunited with her a year later at which point they moved to Paris, is back in town. How is she doing?”
Reviewers labeled the film a major bore but Kendall and I were too curious to pass it up. I did worry about dozing off since I was already exhausted going in and I wondered if I might be able to buy a supersized Jolt at the Cinerama Dome’s concession stand. But I’m here to tell you: “The Da Vinci Code” is NOT boring, and I didn’t find the exposition overwrought, awkward, or over-the-top. I stayed wide awake during the film and was fairly riveted throughout. Then why oh why did I dislike this film so much?
A few disclaimers: I did not read the Dan Brown book (although I listened to part of it on my iPod and was not terribly impressed). I am certainly no expert on any of the historical claims made in the book and movie, including those related to the Priory of Sion, Opus Dei, or the machinations of the early Catholic Church. And my knowledge of the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene extends only as far as Mary’s plaintive song in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “I don’t know how to love him, what to do, how to move him.”
So I admit that I may be one of the least qualified people on the planet to comment on this film. But will that stop me? An old colleague, Matt Newman, and I used to frequently exchange lengthy reviews with each other about the major films of the day. Our only rule? We were not allowed to actually see the films before criticizing them. What is more fun than spewing out highly opinionated diatribes with no regard to the actual facts? But I have seen “The Da Vinci Code” and I can sum up my complaint with one word. Boring? No. Too much exposition? Not for me. So what’s my problem? The film is STUPID, STUPID, STUPID. The holes in the plot are big enough to house an army of religious pilgrims and all 14 Stations of the Cross. The mystery that is revealed at the end of the film is so inane that I was audibly groaning and I suddenly understood why the snooty Cannes audience burst out laughing at inappropriate moments.
I am tempted to spoil the Big Reveal but I will restrain myself for those of you who haven’t yet read the book but plan to see the film. Still, everyone at this point knows that the story hinges on the speculation that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were actually married (Was there a chuppah? Did he break the glass? Was there a chopped liver Ferris wheel at the reception?) and had a child before Papa J. was crucified. You probably also heard that following hubby’s death Mary was whisked away to France (!) with baby in tow and lived out the rest of her life in secret. But what happened to Jesus’s offspring? A-ha, quelle mystère! You’d better pop on over to the Louvre and take a look at some of the paintings of the Grand Masters. There are clues there, baby, BIG CLUES!
But are there? That was my first disappointment with this film. I heard that Ron Howard got permission to film in the actual Louvre, which was a major feat, and that the Mona Lisa would provide some pivotal clues to help Harvard symbologist Tom Hanks solve the jigsaw puzzle of intrigue he was suddenly embroiled in following the murder of a curator at the museum. But despite the gigantic posters of the Mona Lisa that appeared all over L.A. (a really cool one across the street from the Cinerama Dome would change at sunset when a black light revealed a bunch of medieval writing across the smiling visage), the Da Vinci business was, to my mind, nothing more than a red herring. Yeah, yeah, we are told that Leonardo was one of the many famous people that were in the Priory of Sion, the group that took it upon themselves to protect the secret of Jesus and Mary’s offspring, but the Mona Lisa did not seem to be a pivotal plot element at all. This is very picky but I also groaned when Audrey Tautou kept calling the painting the Mona Lisa when I know that French people always refer to this painting by its French name, “La Jaconde.” Sure, they’ve heard of the American name but they are as unlikely to use this term as the saleslady in my favorite Parisian patisserie was unwilling to respond to my request for a “Napoleon” when she knew damn well that was the American name for the pastry the French call a “millesfeuilles.”
I also found it ridiculous that twice in the film one of the characters pries off a priceless painting from a wall in the Louvre and there is only a slight beep of an alarm. If someone actually tried that these days I’m assuming a SWAT team would swing down from the ceiling, pistol whip the offender into unconsciousness, and place him in solitary confinement in the nearby Gendarmerie. Yet another picky point: I was living in Paris when they were excavating the ground under the I.M. Pei-designed Pyramide du Louvre, the controversial modern entry to the museum, and it’s absurd to imagine that a certain undiscovered tomb resides directly underneath this structure. (Oops, I’m coming close to revealing a critical plot point so let’s move on…)
As far as the casting goes, I thought Audrey Tautou did a good job despite my worry that she’d adopt the cutesy “gamine” face she made popular in her huge crossover hit “Amelie.” I actually liked “Amelie” when I saw it but I unfairly turned on Tautou when the world press kept telling us how très mignonne the actress was in the film. For a while the young star appeared in nearly every French movie that made its way to these shores. Is Audrey Tautou’s presence now required for a foreign film to get a distribution deal?
As usual in major studio films like this, the supporting characters are more interesting than the lead roles. Alfred Molina is wonderful as an insanely ambitious bishop with ties to the secretive Opus Dei cult. Sir Ian McKellen is delicious as the historian and Holy Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing. Who else but McKellen could make a PowerPoint presentation on “The Last Supper” more interesting than many of the film’s high-paced action scenes? But Paul Bettany, looking as creepy as a Star Wars Sith, isn’t as exciting as a murderous albino self-flagellating monk ought to be. On the other hand, if Playgirl ever decides to do a pictorial in a medieval monastery, the frequently nude Bettany would definitely be in line for Crazed Monk Hunk of the Year, despite his obsession with “corporal mortification.” Is there another albino monk on the planet who is that toned? I also liked German actor Jurgen Prochnow as Swiss bank president Andre Vernet. No matter how disappointing “The Da Vinci Code” is, Prochnow is far better off here than in his former “Das Boot” director’s latest film, “Poseidon.” Popular French actor Jean Reno plays Captain Fache who pursues Tom Hanks with a zeal that makes no sense when you consider the flimsy evidence he has against him.
And what of Hanks’ leading role as Robert Langdon? I am a big fan of Tom Hanks but I think his presence here is a mistake. Never for one second do I believe Tom Hanks as this character. He has zero passion and seems to be reciting his lines as if he’s narrating an art history documentary on PBS. Maybe those were conscious choices made by Hanks and Ron Howard but boy, for me it does not work. I kept imagining someone like Harrison Ford in the role, but I guess he’s already put in his time searching for the Holy Grail. Is there supposed to be any sexual tension between Hanks’ character and Tautou’s? I’ve felt more sexual energy between Fred and Ethel Mertz on a typical “I Love Lucy” rerun.
When I first heard about all the controversy this film is generating, I cheered the frequent refrains coming from Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, Paul Bettany, and others that this is a work of FICTION, it is not claiming to provide any actual insights into the lives of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the Gospels, the Catholic Church, or the activities of the groups represented in the film. On the other hand, I think Dan Brown is guilty of clouding the issue with his frequent assertions about how much of his book is based on FACT. An entire cottage industry has emerged of books that try to prove, refute, or parody the historical elements of the story. Most bookstores in L.A. right now have large “Da Vinci Code” tables full of endless Da Vinci-themed products. Not since the Harry Potter frenzy have I seen this many commercial tie-ins to a book and movie.
According to many, the Priory of Sion is not a group that has been around for centuries, as the story claims, but an organization that was founded in Annemasse, France, in 1956. Yes, there was a small medieval monastic order known as the Priory of Sion but historians claim it was completely absorbed by the Jesuits in 1617. It was the 1982 book “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” that put the Priory of Sion on the map and provided Dan Brown with the source material for his novel. This was the book that first published the claims that the Priory of Sion included folks like Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and Jean Cocteau. But frankly, many of the assertions about this secret group sound as plausible as the ravings of L.Ron Hubbard, and most historians and academics dismiss this historical view of the Priory of Sion as an elaborate hoax.
Opus Dei, the group that is featured in “The Da Vinci Code” as the arch enemy of the Priory of Sion, was founded, according to experts, in Spain in 1928. It is composed of priests and lay members who follow its very strict customs and practices. Some people consider Opus Dei a dangerous cult and work to expose the group and “deprogram” its adherents. Opus Dei claims that they have about 80,000 members worldwide but that its numbers are growing as a result of “The Da Vinci Code” even though the book and film present Opus Dei members as murderous, fanatical thugs. Reading about the group presents a chilling portrait of mind control and cult-like tactics. But browsing the organization’s own website presents an entirely different picture. Looking as warm and friendly as an ad for a local preschool, the Opus Dei website counters many of the claims made in “The Da Vinci Code” including the notion that Opus Dei members engage in bloody corporal mortification (Paul Bettany has a field day inflicting pain on his body in the most hideous ways). At the end of its explanation, the Opus Dei site concedes that “some Opus Dei members make limited use of the cilice and discipline, types of mortification that have always had a place in the Catholic tradition because of their symbolic reference to Christ’s Passion…The Church teaches that people should take reasonable care of their physical health, and anyone with experience in this matter knows that these practices do not injure one’s health in any way. 'The Da Vinci Code’s' description of the cilice and discipline is greatly exaggerated and distorted: it is simply not possible to injure oneself with them as the book and film depict.” Really? A spiked metal belt worn tight around the upper thigh does not cause any injury? I really think that the notion of “mortification of the flesh” is among the strangest things that ever came out of Catholicism. But what do I know? We Jews hurt ourselves in other ways (not even including our tendency to ingest large amounts of chicken fat).
The Vatican has come out strongly against the book and film, which is obviously a boon to Dan Brown and the filmmakers—you can’t buy publicity like that! This weekend some Catholic groups in the Philippines conducted a mass burning of copies of the book, posters of the film, and pirated videotapes and DVDs (screening the actual film is already banned in Manila). The images of these bonfires are just as scary as the accusations the film makes about Opus Dei, and evokes the Nazi bookburnings of the 1930s. “We still haven’t read it,” said Jeremy, 16, a member of one of the youth organizations involved in the protest. “I would have wanted to read it, but it’s too expensive to buy.”
Of course I think the hysteria engendered by the film is misguided and that the book and movie should be available to anyone who is interested. But I have to admit I can understand some of the Church’s concerns. I certainly left the film with some negative feelings about organized religion. But it was only the hierarchal power-hungry elements that left the bad taste in my mouth, certainly not the speculation that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a relationship that produced a child. Even if that were true, WHO CARES? Why would that in any way take away from Jesus’s message and teachings? That was the biggest thing that didn’t work for me in the film. After the Big Reveal at the end, my only response was, SO WHAT? There’s little reason to believe that the speculation about Jesus’s offspring has any basis in fact, but why should the presence of such descendents be considered such a threat among devout Christians? Because Jesus actually loved an individual human being and had sexual intercourse (gasp!)? Why wouldn’t that make him more qualified to understand the problems of the people he was down here to help? Didn’t my favorite version of Mary Magdalene (courtesy of Sir Andrew) address this very issue?
He’s a man, he’s just a man
And I’ve had so many men before
In very many ways
He’s just one more.
Why didn’t that song cause a similar firestorm of condemnation when the play opened in 1971? Oh wait…I think it did. Far more slanderous than the notion that Jesus got it on with Mary Magdalene is the idea that is continually promulgated that she was a prostitute when there’s very little evidence to suggest that this was the case. Yet another woman whose reputation is dragged through the mire for the self-serving purposes of powerful men.
Oh well, I’d better stop my ravings before I become the target of every Christian splinter group with a website. I sure don’t want those scary Opus Dei folks coming after me. The group tried to get Ron Howard to add a disclaimer at the beginning of the film labeling it as a work of fiction. “It’s not theology,” Howard responded. “It’s not history. Spy thrillers don’t start off with disclaimers!” Right on, Ron. And yet to be honest I’m surprised that Howard didn’t change the name of this group since the members of Opus Dei are depicted in such an unbelievably negative light.
Maybe it’s best that the film was directed by Ron Howard, who is still remembered by many as the angelic Opie Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show.” I recently wrote about how hundreds of church groups, mostly in the South, have adopted a program that looks at episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” in the context of Christian theology (even though most of the show’s writers were Jewish!). These churches show an episode of the 1960s sitcom and then break into small groups for discussion. “It’s not a study of the show,” said a churchgoer, “it’s Bible study. The show simply illustrates biblical values.” Maybe critics of “The Da Vinci Code” would be better served by considering the question that has been pondered for generations: “What Would Andy Do?”