40 million people have read Dan Brown’s book The DaVinici Code , a fact that greatly agitates the Catholic Church. Does anyone really think that the faith of readers will be shaken by the pseudo-history of a popular fiction? No one took it seriously when Indiana Jones went on his Last Crusade , also on a treasure hunt through the cathedrals of Europe to find the Holy Grail – but that’s because its murky theology was more or less in line with dominant ideology.
If The DaVinci Code gets people interested in researching the differences between early Christianity and the modern Church, and where all those goddess religions got to, so much the better; the book is dead on in those areas. Its greater conspiracy theories, however, though fun, are completely preposterous, just as we expect them to be. Was Jesus married? And for an encore, did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone?
The book is a lot better than the movie, which is a strangely static thing. There’s way too much talk, and the talk isn’t very exciting. The director, Ron Howard, and his frequent writing collaborator Akiva Goldsman, miss one opportunity after another to make the story more cinematic. When the chance does arise, Howard botches it; witness the low-energy, throwaway car chase.
Howard does employ one effective technique, developed in his A Beautiful Mind . When Robert Langdon, a non-entity Harvard symbology professor played by a miscast Tom Hanks, tries to crack a code, we see the pieces of the puzzle glow and shuffle around, mirroring the process in his head. It’s a neat trick, used in the movie’s best scene, involving supposed hidden messages in DaVinici’s The Last Supper . There are also some scenes which sketch in various character’s back-stories, in just a few efficient images, that are well-done. The flashbacks seem to suggest some connection between the two heroes and Silas, the killer albino monk played by Paul Bettany, but it comes to nothing. Other loose ends, indicative of sloppy writing, include Robert’s claustrophobia, and a scene in which crooked Bishop Aringarosa, Alfred Molina, admits he’d be willing to kill a descendant of Christ.
Why was Ron Howard, a sappy populist and a low-rent Spielberg clone, attracted to this story in the first place? It’s in no way a fit for his sensibility. He seems to have been aware of this. Early on, Silas chastises himself with a rope whip and a compression band on his thigh called a celise (those are real, and so is the Catholic fringe organization Opus Dei, which uses them). We linger on his bloody back, wounded thighs, and naked posterior. This is Howard protesting, "See? I’m all grown up." But later, when a naked priest is spread eagled like Vertruvian Man, there’s a big spotlight obscuring his groin, effectively pinning a fig leaf on a DaVinci. And when it comes to an important scene involving ritualistic sex, Howard won’t even enter the room. Opie-vision shrinks from such sights, as does the sexually skittish PG-13 rating. Think of what David Cronenberg or Roman Polanski might have done.
I’ll leave you to ponder a curious quote from the book:
"Robert," Faukman finally said, "don’t get me wrong. I love your work but if I agree to publish an idea like this, I’ll have people picketing outside my office for months. Besides you’re a Harvard historian, for God’s sake, not a pop schlockmeister looking for a quick buck."
The DaVinici Code is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.