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The Da Vinci Code
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The Da Vinci Code
directed by Ron Howard
Sony Pictures
149 minutes (PG-13 rating)

commentary by Jana Riess

When I first read Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code three years ago, I was appalled by its vigorous anti-Catholicism. It was a poorly written thriller to be sure, despite its tight plotting, but what really got my goat was its allegations that for two thousand years, the upper echelons of the Catholic Church have been sanctioning murder to cover up the “truth” about history. The novel asserts that not only did this happen in the early Church or during the Middle Ages, but it continues to occur in the Vatican today.

And for the last three years, I've been wondering: why aren't Catholics more upset about this book?

It seems they saved their ire for the film release. Now, there are the boycotts. Now, we see the vehement denials and the defensive posture. And now, ironically enough, it’s not all that necessary, because director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have already softened the book so much as to make its anti-Catholicism virtually unrecognizable.

In their hands, Dan Brown’s imagined world of clandestine meetings and vitriolic Catholics has been transformed. The book’s murders become the work of a few rogue zealots, rather than something sanctioned by the Church. The film inserts a scene where a hand-wringing cardinal frets, “Remember—if we are discovered by the Vatican, we are excommunicated.”

That same character expresses uncertainty about Bishop Aringarosa’s willingness to undertake whatever must be done to protect the Church’s secrets. Clearly, the film is bending over backwards to separate the Church as a whole from its more dubious fanatics. Howard wants to reassure us that the Church possesses a cri de la conscience, even if it never gets to in the novel.

That’s not to say it's a good movie, however. Poor Ian McKellan seems to have a difficult time keeping a straight face playing the anti-hero Leigh Teabing, as he’s forced to spit out maniacally silly lines about “driving this church of lies to its knees!” Tom Hanks is likewise sadly miscast and underutilized here, though he does his best. His cryptology sequences are downright childish, and Ron Howard’s decision to display Langdon’s solutions by lighting up one word or letter at a time is hackneyed—we saw it all before in his markedly better film A Beautiful Mind.

The movie feels long and plodding as the actors slog through the relentlessly verbose script. At least here, unlike the book, Langdon’s historical sermonettes are accompanied by images that try their best to be entertaining; as he drones on, we get to watch Knights Templars writhing in pain as they roast at the stake. Nummy. The movie also offers a visual representation of the Council of Nicea that is so ridiculously gladiatorial and theatrical that it actually made me laugh out loud in the theatre. Surely the filmmakers did not intend that sequence to be funny.

Sophie’s character has been strengthened somewhat for the film. She gets in some blows on Silas, splendidly portrayed by a very sensitive Paul Bettany. She rams her SmartCar full speed in reverse down the streets (not to mention the sidewalks) of Paris, efficiently spiriting Robert Langdon away from the police. And strangely, the film has removed the suggestion of romance between the two protagonists, omitting their passionate kiss at story’s end.

But where Hollywood giveth, Hollywood taketh away: the movie-Sophie is essentially useless as a cryptologist, and when Langdon and Teabing have their tiresome discussions about history and theology, she mostly just looks constipated.

But if Sophie is overall a slightly stronger character in the film, Robert Langdon is a much weaker one. Howard’s decision to create a backstory for Langdon, whose childhood fall down a well is recast as a spiritual experience of Christ’s presence, comes across as so much sermonizing. I preferred Langdon as an agnostic and skeptic. At least it was honest, without attempting to pander to an American moviegoing audience.

Where the film excels over the book is in its own refusal to take itself as seriously as Dan Brown seems to regard his work of fiction. Howard’s film is not sullied by any kind of preface declaring its assertions to be factual. It’s a summer action flick—a slow-moving and garrulous one, to be sure, but no more inherently plausible than when aliens attacked America ten summers ago in Independence Day. Instead of kick-ass aliens, we get an albino monk, and replacing a fighter-jet-pilot president, we get a tweedy professor who still believes he’s in a lecture hall.

Both the novel’s action and its agenda-driven theology have been watered down for this film. With typical trendy relativism, Langdon sums up that it doesn't matter what historical truth actually is; “what matters...is what you believe.” So where we once had a disturbing novel that made offensive allegations against the Catholic Church, now we have a feel-good blockbuster that winds up saying nothing at all. I’m hard pressed to say which is more insulting.

Copyright @ 2006 Jana Riess


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