On the other hand many people have taken the novel far more seriously than it deserves. It is filled with errors, half-truths, absurd conspiracy theories and appalling religious stereotypes. Indeed, it is a fictional tale!
It is no surprise, then, that the film is a mixed blessing too, but for different reasons.
The Da Vinci Code movie is overly long, the direction is uninspired and the acting from Tom Hanks and Audrey Tatou is surprisingly weak. And, what’s worse, with twenty minutes still to run in this 149-minute marathon, the film completely runs out of puff.
The general story in the film is, of course, that of the book: before He was put to death, Jesus consummated His relationship with Mary Magdalene and she conceived a child. The ‘Holy Grail’ is a code name for the bloodline of Jesus and Magdalene in the book – not the chalice used at the last supper, but rather a symbol for Jesus’ issue, and the woman who carried His child. The Church has always known about Christ’s descendants, and worked to suppress all knowledge and memory of them. But they have survived through a line of medieval French aristocracy.
During the Crusades, the Knights Templar uncovered the secret of Jesus and Magdalene’s family, and in 1099 founded the Priory of Sion to maintain the secret, pass it on in code and protect the known descendants. Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci were among the Priory’s many notable members.
Opus Dei is now charged by the Roman Catholic Church to do all it must to make sure the secret stays unknown. Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) and Sophie Neveau (Tatou) are reluctantly drawn into discovering the identity of the last living descendant of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.
As Sir Leigh Teabing (McKellen) grandly observes in the film, “You asked what would be worth killing for. Witness the biggest cover-up in human history... We are in the middle of a war. One that has been going on forever to protect a secret so powerful that if revealed it would devastate the very foundations of mankind.”
There are a number of modifications from the film to the book. There needed to be. Dan Brown’s prose is not the best, the plot of the novel was unnecessarily complicated, and the characters underdeveloped. Akiva Goldman’s script cleans up Brown’s work considerably, but I guess there was only so much he could do. The script remains didactic, the dialogue clumsy in parts and the drama in the last act as illusive as the Holy Grail itself.
There are, however, some welcome changes from the book to the film. Principally, the way the theories are discussed in the film is much more speculative and contested than in the novel. This film is trying to be more conciliatory.
But hosts of serious errors remain. Here are just some of them.
The Church has not suppressed the memory of Mary Magdalene as The Da Vinci Code contends, but has venerated her throughout history as the “apostle to the Apostles.” Thousands of Catholic Churches, colleges and communities are named in her honour. In recent times, just as she was rightly throwing off her prostitution tag and emerging as one of the Christ’s pre-eminent disciples, in this film, sadly, she is redefined as a lover and mother, sexualised all over again.
Furthermore, the Gnostic gospels do not emphasise the humanity of Jesus. Almost all of them portray Him as God parading around in human form.
Constantine was not a “pagan Emperor” until his death bed, but a Christian catechumen who worried that he could only make one confession in his lifetime, as was the liturgical law of the period.
Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon and Audrey Tautou as Sophie Neveu in the suspense thriller The Da Vinci Code. Photo: Sony Pictures
The Priory of Sion was not founded in 1066 but in 1956 by the convicted conman Pierre Plantard.
The execution of 50,000 women as witches during the Inquisitions was a criminally dark chapter in our history, but is not “the worst killing spree in human history.” Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot vie to take out that evil honour.
The figure to Jesus’ right in Leonardo’s Last Supper can be more accurately read as the beloved disciple – a fresh-faced, unshaven, ‘goldilocked’ Renaissance teenager.
The biggest loser in the film, however, is Opus Dei. They are not a Vatican prelature, but a personal prelature of the Pope. They do not have monks, but a very small number of ordained priests within a more general lay movement. They don’t wear habits, cowled or otherwise. They did not invent the cilice and flagellation whip, and do not demand that everyone use them. They do not recruit their priests from prisons for the criminally insane.
Indeed, in the sinister way this film presents the albino Silas, it perpetuates the dreadful calumny often used in novels and films that really evil people also suffer some physical illness, genetic disorder or disability. Be warned, there are two scenes of masochism and a couple of violent moments that will shock you.
Ron Howard is normally a reliable filmmaker. Here he lets us down with never-ending sweeping shots, wall-to-wall ominous music, a gloomy atmosphere, and poorly researched and realised flashback sequences.
And for what?
In one of the many internal theological contradictions in the book and the film, we are told that Jesus was not really divine, but that this claim was invented by the Church about Him. The main characters seem to accept this. So by the end of the film why should they or we care about who is the last surviving descendant of a first century Jewish Rabbi?
Throughout the film the Catholic Church is called “the dark con” of history. I know who is conning whom here, so save your money and your time.
Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.