Da Vinci Code
directed by Ron Howard
149 minutes (PG-13 rating)
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.”
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
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.
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.
@ 2006 Jana Riess