The makers of The Da Vinci Code have been saying for some time now that their film is not supposed to be taken all that seriously. It's not history, and it's not theology, director Ron Howard has said; instead, it's just a rollicking good bit of entertainment. And leading man Tom Hanks has said it's loaded "with all sorts of hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense," calling the story "a lot of fun."
If only they had taken their own advice. Dan Brown's novel may be the product of extremely sloppy historical study, but even many of the book's critics have admitted that it is a "page-turner," an exciting yarn that carries the reader off on a semi-clever, fast-paced ride. The film, on the other hand, is a dull and plodding bore, and it takes itself far, far too seriously.
For those who have not yet read the book or any summaries thereof, the story begins with an albino monk named Silas (Paul Bettany) shooting Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle), the curator of the Louvre museum in Paris. In his dying moments, Sauniere strips off his clothes, cuts a symbol into his own flesh, and scrawls some cryptic messages in invisible ink in various places around the museum. Police chief Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) summons Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), an expert on symbols, to the Louvre and comes to believe that Langdon might be the killer—but while he is plotting to arrest Langdon, Sauniere's granddaughter Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), herself a police officer, helps Langdon to escape. Langdon and Sophie then run all over France and, eventually, England, dodging the police while solving the coded puzzles that Sauniere left behind—puzzles which lead to a secret society that claims everything Christians believe is a lie.
The thing to remember about Dan Brown's novels, and now the adaptations thereof, is that they are fundamentally silly. Few books have made me laugh out loud as heartily as Angels & Demons, the first novel to feature the character of Robert Langdon, in which Langdon makes the ludicrous claim that Christians "borrowed" the practice of Holy Communion from the Aztecs—a North American culture that didn't encounter Christianity until nearly 1,500 years after the life of Jesus. And I have always gotten a giggle from the Da Vinci Code trailer, in which Langdon's eccentric friend Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) gravely intones that he knows a secret which, if revealed, would "devastate the very foundations of mankind." Ah, so grandiose!
In the movie, however, Teabing says that the secret he knows would "devastate the very foundations of Christianity," a much more specific, and offensive, sort of claim. And the movie, written by Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), seems to go out of its way to give the story even more historical credibility than the novel does. One of the amusing things about the book is how Brown slaps together as many cultural reference points as possible—from high-brow Renaissance art to popular Disney cartoons—in a sort of post-modern pastiche to create the impression that the conspiracies and secret societies he describes are everywhere around us. But in the film, everything is played with a very straight face, the pop-culture allusions are eliminated altogether (as are some of the book's loopier claims), and our focus stays on the classic and medieval paintings, sculptures and architecture.
In addition, Robert Langdon has been made into more of a skeptic, so that when he talks about the Priory of Sion (the secret society that is supposedly protecting the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene), he refers to them, at first, as a "myth." He even says the group was exposed as a "hoax" in 1967—a claim which prompts Teabing to say, "That's what they want you to believe." Also, in the book, Teabing says that Mary Magdalene was labeled a "prostitute" by "the early church" as part of a "smear campaign," and leaves it at that; but in the film, Langdon specifies A.D. 591 as the date when Mary Magdalene was formally identified as a prostitute. (That was the year when Pope Gregory gave a sermon claiming that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the "sinful woman" who washed Jesus' feet were all the same woman.)
What's more, Langdon and Teabing now play a sort of good-cop-bad-cop routine. The book flat-out states that "five million" (emphasis in the original) women were killed by the Catholic church over 300 years, and it states this in a passage that seems to be reflecting Langdon's own thoughts as he thinks back on the history of the church. But in the film, Langdon says the number was 50,000, and then Teabing interjects that some would say the victims actually numbered in the "millions." Also, when Teabing says that the emperor Constantine had to intervene in religious matters in the early 4th century because Christians were rioting against pagans in the streets (a claim that is brought to visual life in a brief, violent flashback), Langdon interjects and says that the pagans might have started the atrocities first—a claim that is never backed up by anything on the screen. And the film's version of Langdon explicitly says that Constantine did not invent the divinity of Jesus—which is almost the exact opposite of what the book's version of Langdon says.
The changes the film makes to Langdon have a subtle, even sinister, effect. The book tends to emphasize his superior knowledge, which could have the effect of distancing him from the average moviegoer. But the film casts Everyman actor Tom Hanks in the role, and then makes Langdon a moderate Everyman who initially finds Teabing's claims too crazy. The thing is, as far as this story is concerned, Langdon comes to discover that Teabing, for all his anti-ecclesiastical kookiness, is actually right. In short, the film is the story of how Langdon comes to believe in Teabing's theories; and because Langdon has been made more accessible, he takes the audience along with him on his journey to this new belief. And while all this is going on, the film's explicitly Christian characters—Silas, Fache, and the manipulative Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), who takes his own cues from a mysterious unseen "Teacher"—are all portrayed as pathetic dupes, let down by their own beliefs.
In one of the final scenes, Langdon tries to spell out the film's main theme. Referring to the nature of Jesus, Langdon asks, "Why does it have to be human or divine?" At this point, I half-expected Tom Hanks to go into Forrest Gump mode and say, "Maybe it's both"—which would, of course, be the orthodox position (even if we might quibble with what the film says about the way Jesus expressed his humanity during his earthly ministry). But no, instead, Langdon's next words are, "Maybe human is divine." Which may be very soothing to the post-modern ear, but it just begs the questions: What is divinity? What is humanity?
Given this kind of dialogue, it's impossible to take the filmmakers seriously when they say that their movie makes no historical or theological claims. Why did they feel the need to add details missing from Brown's book, or to correct some of its errors, if the historical claims didn't really matter? And would they have been just as pleased with a closing scene in which Langdon said Jesus is the divine Son of God who became man to show us how to become the fully human beings we were originally meant to be? Somehow, I doubt it.
And what of the entertainment, the rollicking good thrill ride that the filmmakers say they are trying to give us? Truth be told, whether it's Silas popping out of nowhere with a weapon in his hand, or Langdon accidentally disarming an ally who turns out to be a gun-packing enemy, or Sophie driving a car backwards through busy traffic, these are among the movie's weakest and most generic elements. The performances are all pretty grim, too; only McKellen, as Teabing, seems to be having any fun. And Howard's direction emphasizes all the wrong things; the quasi-academic exposition, which is what has intrigued most fans of the book, is tossed off so rapidly in places that you almost miss it, whereas the camera dwells at some length on scenes of the albino monk's self-flagellation, among other things. Hans Zimmer's musical score is effective in places, at least, but it would have been even better if it didn't sound like a carbon copy of the themes he wrote for Batman Begins.
Bottom line: If you want an entertaining yarn about the Knights Templar, historical secrets, and cryptic codes hidden in famous documents and artifacts, go rent National Treasure. Now there's a movie that knows how to have fun with an absurd premise—and it doesn't spread falsehoods about the Church that have already undermined the faith of many Christians. The best thing that can be said about The Da Vinci Code is that it is such a dud, it just might help to bring this phenomenon to an end. And the sooner, the better.Discussion starters
- Can a movie like this can be "only entertainment"? How do you respond to its images of the Nicene Council, or of early Christians rioting in the streets? How do the movie's visuals tilt your sympathies? Are you more inclined to believe one character than another
- A nun tells Silas, "Jesus had but one true message." Does this movie say what that message is? If so, what is it? How does the nun's statement square with the scene in which Langdon tells Sophie that what matters is what she believes? What does the movie suggest about the possibility of an exclusive truth claim, vs. the idea of many valid beliefs
- Do you think the bones of Mary Magdalene pose any threat to Christianity? What do you make of the churches which claim to have her relics? Would there be a way to say if those relics were the true ones? Does it matter? Why do you think no one in the film ever shows any interest in the bones of Jesus
- Sophie tells Silas, "Your God doesn't forgive murderers. He burns them!" How would you answer this? Do you think Sophie believes in God? Do you think Silas can be forgiven for what he has done
- Can anything be "proved" historically? To what degree is history an act of faith? How do movies, including earlier Ron Howard or Tom Hanks movies like Saving Private Ryan or Apollo 13, shape our view of history? How do they shape our faith?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Da Vinci Code is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, violence (including shootings, kickings, impalings, poisonings, and the breaking of necks), some nudity (of a monk's naked behind, before he whips himself), thematic material (including the depiction of Mary Magdalene bearing the child of Jesus, Christians killing pagans in the streets in the days before Constantine legalized Christianity, the Crusaders conquering Jerusalem, and Teabing's claim that Constantine "presided over" the creation of the Bible), brief drug references (when Teabing asks the police if they've discovered any cannabis) and sexual content (in a very brief flashback where the young Sophie witnesses her grandfather having sex as part of a secret religious ritual; but their bodies are covered by a blanket).
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from Film Forum, 06/01/06
Mark Gudgel (Relevant): "The same historical errors exist, but are now available to all in one easy-to-swallow, three-minute scene in which Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen, perfect for the role), just as in the book, offers a gushing speech of falsehoods, historical inaccuracies and even lies regarding the early Church, Constantine, the Council of Nicea and the divinity of Christ. Considerably worse than the storyline involving Jesus' supposed marriage to Mary Magdalene is this scene, in which Brown's fictional expert gives his inaccurate yet convincing portrayal of early Christian beliefs."from Film Forum, 05/25/06
You just had to feel a little bad for Ron Howard (a very little bad if you're Catholic) last week when his latest pet project—that infernal Dan Brown movie—debuted to jeers and derisive jabs at the Cannes Film Festival. Everyone's been buzzing about The Da Vinci Code's controversial religious and historical claims for years now, but it seems like it never occurred to anyone that the movie might end up being just plain bad. Not bad in a moral sense, mind you—just bad, period.
Don't feel too sorry for the guy, however—critics may hate his movie, but audiences sure don't. The Da Vinci Codeopened last weekend to $224 million in global ticket sales—the second highest-grossing debut of all time, right behind the third and final Star Wars prequel ($253 million). The film broke box office records worldwide, which is sure to remove some of the critical sting its creators were surely suffering.
With its outlandish claims about Christ and Christianity, however, it's no surprise that Christian critics share the negative response of mainstream reviewers.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) rails against the film's "raving anti-Catholicism," calling it "a 2½‑hour seminar on the evils of monotheism, Christianity, and the Catholic Church." He continues: "The DaVinci Code may be the most systematic and sustained cinematic debunking on the institutions of Catholic Christianity and the Catholic Church that I've ever seen. That it is risible and dim-witted doesn't make it less disgusting."
Harry Forbes and David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) write, "If Brown had merely attempted to resurrect some of the darker chapters in church history, unflattering or not, that might have been fair game. But these egregious assertions, gussied up in the trappings of a Robert Ludlum thriller, are different in that they cut to the core of Christian doctrine. Speculative fantasy is one thing, insensitivity to people's basic beliefs is another."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) acknowledges a few positive changes made from the book, but still concludes that "this Da Vinci Code-lite, so to speak, still sets out to sow seeds of doubt about the Christian faith and it challenges important core truths established in Scripture. It also leads to an absurd—and damaging—conclusion. Robert ultimately tells Sophie, 'What matters is what you believe.' Never mind evidence, history, or sound reasoning. Just believe what you want. It's a shaky (and shoddy) theology that clashes with the solution to the story's central mystery since the movie must believe the very things Robert is doubting if it's to end the way it does—by providing 'proof' that all the previously mentioned nonsense is still, somehow, true."
Andrew Coffin (World Magazine) agrees: "This is, of course, the religion of me. Langdon's repeated advice to Sophie in a crucial final scene is, 'It's important what you believe.' Not what's true, but what's true for you. In the final analysis, Christianity isn't entirely repudiated, even if it is based on utter falsehoods, because faith (in something) is important, insofar as that faith benefits those who require it. That, more than Mr. Brown's silly, easily refuted conspiracy theories, is an all too prevalent cancer on our culture's understanding of spirituality."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) simply states that the film is "a mystery so lifeless, in a package so dull, that even its most outrageous allegations about Jesus Christ and the Catholic church don't get much traction." He goes on to say that it "is, if not exactly good, at least watchable during much of its running time. A climactic sequence two hours into the movie seems to bring the film to a conclusion, but there's still more to come. Much more. Unfortunately, there's no momentum, no sense of grand revelation. The film simply breaks down. The long stretches of dialogue are punishing, the pacing leaden, and the visuals dark and uninviting. The story absurdly tries to wrap a faith-affirming ribbon around its church-bashing package."
Michael Karounos (Christian Spotlight) writes: "It appears that Ron Howard got so caught up in the pompous material that he forgot that it is fiction, that he works in Hollywood, and that his primary responsibility is to entertain not to preach."
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) concludes, "In the end, Howard and Company tried to adapt arguably the most scrutinized, controversial, read, debated, loved, and hated novel of this young century. The attempt is noble. But perhaps theirs was an impossible quest … "
Matt Page (Open Heaven) says "the film modifies the role of religion in the story, and ends up with a horrifyingly clichéd Hollywoodism 'what matters is what you believe.' It tries to reduce the offensiveness and controversial nature of the novel, but seems, almost inadvertently, to increase this in other places as well. Visually there is some interesting work, the scene in Teabing's study where he reveals the clues allegedly hidden in Leonardo's Last Supper is a triumph, and there are a few other interesting shots. However, the sense of tension and action that made the book such a page-turner is dissipated—the action sequences are a little dull, and the puzzles are solved a little too quickly."
Mainstream critics are tearing Da Vinci to shreds.from Film Forum, 05/18/06
The Da Vinci Code, which opens in North American theaters on Friday, debuted Tuesday at a press screening at the Cannes Film Festival in front of some of the world's toughest critics.
The immediate verdict: "Lukewarm praise, shrugs of indifference, some jeering laughter, and a few derisive jabs," according to The Associated Press.
"I kept thinking of the Energizer Bunny, because it kept going and going and going, and not in a good way," said James Rocchi, a film critic for CBS 5 TV in San Francisco.
Reuters reported that the film left critics cold.
"Nothing really works," said Stephen Schaefer of the Boston Herald. "It's not suspenseful. It's not romantic. It's certainly not fun."
Film criticism aside, USA Today reports that the movie "deviates only subtly" from the book, with the lead character—Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks)—actually entertaining the notion that Jesus might have been divine after all. (Brown's book claims that Christ wasn't God.)
In the film, Langdon says, "History shows Jesus was an extraordinary man. Why couldn't Jesus have been divine and still have been a father?" That line isn't in the book. And near the end of the movie, Langdon says, "What matters is what you believe," also indicating that the film doesn't take quite as hard-line a stance on the question of Christ's divinity.
USA Today also reports that, contrary to rumors, there are no scenes of Jesus and Mary Magdalene romantically involved.
Rick Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter writes in his review: "For those who hate [the book], the eagerly awaited and much-hyped movie version beautifully exposes all its flaws and nightmares of logic. For those who love the book's page-turning intensity, the movie version heightens Brown's mischievous interweaving of genre action, historical facts and utter fictions. In other words, for those who bear witness to the film The Da Vinci Code, what you see depends on what you believe. Kinda like religion itself."
Mainstream critics are not impressed.