The Di Vinci Code

May, 2006, Thriller

    The Da Vinci Code

When mediocre novels like Gone with the Wind, Peyton Place and The Da Vinci Code become enormously popular bestsellers, you can bet it’s because they examine, in shallow but easily accessible fashion, a topic that’s previously been considered taboo. Whether it’s unapologetic nostalgia for the white, slaveholding class in The South on the eve of The Civil War, the sexual appetites of small town U.S.A. before the swinging sixties or the suggestion that Christians’ claims about Jesus Christ have been deliberately fabricated, these books fascinate because they scandalize acceptably, allowing readers to relish the exploration of a subject previously considered off limits while simultaneously clucking about how awful it is.

 That Christianity, one of the great religious traditions of the world, rests on a history full of doctrinal tension, battles over orthodoxy and the use of authority to stifle dissent within its ranks is hardly news; but when it’s glossed with anti-feminist conspiracy, murder and a secret organization that employs the odd bit of flagellation, a shrewd author knows he has the ingredients of surefire success. Dan Brown’s novel was destined to become a movie from the moment it soared to the top of the New York Times’ Bestseller List; but how to bring all that turgid theology and Art History 101 to the screen along with an albino, stupefying cryptology and “The Council”, a coven of right-wing clergymen who’re busy putting out hits on the supposed descendants of Jesus and his wife Mary Magdalene? 

Well, just bring in director Ron Howard and the Jimmy Stewart of his generation, actor Tom Hanks; with a cast of oft-seen but rarely remembered faces, they’ll explore 2000 years of religious tradition and dabble a bit in art appreciation while solving multiple murders in just 2 ½ hours, rarely enlightening the audience on any of the subjects covered, while offering numerous opportunities to doze off…

Howard isn’t a bad director, but his best films, (Night Shift, Splash, and Cocoon) came early in his career; of the seven films he’s made in the last decade, only A Beautiful Mind seems likely to be remembered. Despite any number of car chases and sweeping ariel shots of cityscapes and ancient ruins, there’s no visual excitement in Howard’s style. While he can tell a story well enough, he’s burdened here with a novel so laden with verbose discursions on arcane bits of Church history and art criticism it’s as potentially lethal to its readers as it is to some of its characters. (I gave up after the first 75 pages or so and skipped to the final chapter.) 

As a result, Da Vinci’s brisk beginning, (a murder at The Louvre in the dark of night) soon sags into a protracted chase, pitting Harvard professor Robert Langdon, (Tom Hanks) and Parisian policewoman Sophie Neveu, (Audrey Tautou) against a sinister bishop, his personal assassin and members of the Catholic hierarchy associated with Opus Dei, a secretive and influential organization that has arisen inside Roman Catholicism in the years since Pope John 23rd ushered Catholics into open dialogue with the world a half century ago. All this activity is prompted by a search for the real meaning behind The Holy Grail, which British eccentric Sir Leigh Teabing, (Ian McKellen) claims will “shake the very foundations of the modern world”. He’s enlisted by Langdon to help decipher a coded message entrusted to the murdered man, who also happens to be Nevue’s grandfather. 

As the race to unlock the cipher’s meaning, (and escape those hell-bent on destroying it) moves forward, the audience is treated to torturous dialogue/exposition on Da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper, Emperor Constantine’s imposition of Christianity on the Roman Empire in the 4th century and the doctrinal disputes of The Council of Nicea, which Howard supplements with hilariously awful “historical tableaus” recreating the events under discussion. Then it’s back to the chase, with a few more murders, a quick trip to London and still more deadening commentary on the important role played by women in the early days of the church and how it was leached out of Christianity’s tradition by men, intent on asserting control over the church as it became a growing source of temporal power.

As with any good con, there’s more than a little truth sprinkled in here among Brown’s flights of fictitious fancy, but the manner in which it’s presented makes his version of Christianity no more attractive or compelling than the one the world’s been living with for over two millennia. Hanks makes a suitably attractive professor, (I rather liked the longer hairdo he sports) and Tautou, (Dirty Pretty Things) is still fresh-faced and pretty enough at age 30 to be a most attractive ingénue, but the rest of the cast - - with McClellan as an exception - - is given so little character development in the script that the talents of such competent actors as Jean Reno, Paul Bethany & Alfred Molina are essentially wasted. 

The historical flashbacks aside, there’s nothing really terrible about Di Vinci - - but there’s also nothing in it that’s genuinely interesting or original either. It seems destined to become the movie equivalent of Paris Hilton - - widely seen and widely known, but ignored for essentially being just a piece of insubstantial fluff.

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