The DaVinci Code
By Dan Brown
"The DaVinci Code"
The questioning of a divinity and the doctrines of a church has, perhaps, never been so exciting or supported by so many. If you figure that half of Dan Brown's 60 million copies were shared by one additional reader, you've got 90 million who were attracted to it--its theme, its hereticial suggestion--it's narrative dynamism. This is not an accident of the marketplace, folks. Dan Brown has knowingly tapped into an issue of great concern and widespread interest, using it for an adventure thriller that kept it on the bestseller list for over 150 weeks.
How nice that someone made it into a movie, the release of which has generated an even greater flow of general awareness and agitation within church ranks. Where have these guys been, the ones who are in fear that the suggestion that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had at least one child, and that the bloodline exists today will disturb the cushiness of their hierarchy? Their spin on it has been interesting, with one idea being floated that a scandalous notion will bring more lambs into the flock.
Maybe they're taking it too seriously.
The adventure gets off the ground with a murder. While Professor Robert Langdon, a "symbologist" from Harvard, is giving a lecture in Paris, the chief curator of the Louvre (we don't shy away from high rankers here) is running for his life. The pursuer, in a monk's robe, traps him and reveals that he's an albino (white-haired Paul Bettany) with a silver automatic, an angel of death named Silas. The albino asks the man now squirming on the floor to reveal a secret to save his life. The curator does, and is shot, but is able to scrawl a message and arrange his corpse symbolically in such a manner as to suggest DaVinci. First Captain Fache (Jean Reno) shows up to detain Langdon, then Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) the dead man's niece, arrives to rescue him from certain imprisonment. Everyone knows or suspects more than they're telling, but the search for clues and meanings has begun.
Langdon and Neveu are a team as their combined understandings and skills reveal writings that bring them to a key secreted behind the Mona Lisa, a bequest of her uncle. What it ultimately leads to is a safety box in a bank containing a self destructive cylinder called "Cryptex Rex" that contains a secret parchment within. Unable to break the code to open it safely (a sort of circular Rubik's Cube), other clues pile up to disclose a church conspiracy devoted to hide the true meaning of the Holy Grail.
Their efforts are increasingly hampered by Fache, who is himself a member of Opus Dei, and who is being used by the slippery Bishop Sringarosa (Alfred Molina) to believe that Langdon is the curator-killer. Meanwhile, Silas, a believer given to extreme pain as an expression of his faith, is being run by a man he knows only as "The Teacher."
To understand the issue of the Grail and perhaps open the cylinder Langdon and Neveu seek out his old mentor and reknowned expert, Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan) at his well-guarded estate. He runs a slide show aimed at convincing those he shows it to that the figure to the right of Jesus in DaVinci's famous "Last Supper" is Mary Magdalene, Jesus' pregnant wife, and the Holy Grail itself.
When Fache and his boys show up, Teabing provides an aerial escape which allows the adventure to continue, for justice to be meted out to the guilty, and for the revelation of the final secret.
In bringing together centuries-old secret societies (which included the Freemasons), great art that could be suggestive of shocking hidden meanings, and the web of conflicting factions from Constantine to the Vatican, Dan Brown had to synthesize prodigious research into an intelligible thriller context. This he did with a result that might just merit the word, amazing. Despite the need for copious historical detail, bible and history lesson, his book is a dynamic narrative that defies its own didactic nature. To pull it off he put it into a never-stop pace of information amidst ever-present danger.
If there's anything that explains the critical condemnation of this movie, it's that in 2 1/2 hours director Ron Howard and writer Akiva Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind," "Cinderella Man") didn't crack Brown's code for an equivalent transformation to the new medium, despite Brown's collaboration on the set with the creative team. One difference in the requirements of the two media is how the leading male character plays. Where the scholarly whiz-kid thinking-man is a readily acceptable province for the novel reader, it doesn't provide the required visceral attachment in the visual context. It's critical to live the exploit through Langdon, to appreciate his thrill of discovery. But scholarly fulfillment isn't an adequate shot of adrenalin where we look for and expect the action hero.
But, there's an audience for whom there's meat on these bones, not the least of which is the attack on a major cornerstone of one of the most powerful religions on earth and to suggest corruptive weakness in its structures. It may be a sign of courage to live with the questions it raises. Is this a concept for the sake of a marketing calculation or is the questioning of faith legitimately dramatized? Is it any less legitimate for having been couched in the language of secrecy and immorality? Is this a useful questioning of faith or a debunking of myth? Whatever the answers, the wild success of the book showed that the intrigue of the premise is an irresistible draw.
Strictly in movie terms, Howard's visual talent goes a long way toward a just visualization of the book with Salvatore Totino's appropriately dark, chamber-enhancing photography. The cast comes close enough to represent how readers of the book may have seen the characters, with Tautou a particularly interesting choice. For a non-French audience, she doesn't bring a previously characterizing body of work. For those who have seen her before ("Amelie," "Dirty Pretty Things"), she imparts a greater presence than I've seen before, projecting her patent ability to animate a moment. Howard's canny use of close-ups provides every actor opportunities for expression in a script that doesn't provide much screen time for character delineation.
On balance, I was less involved with the movie than I was with its source but appreciate the effort to decode the book more than I'm inclined to deride it.
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