Friday, June 02, 2006

Film Review - The Da Vinci Code

Since it was first published over two years ago, The Da Vinci Code, a best-selling historical-fiction thriller from acclaimed author Dan Brown, was received by the public with more controversy then any other literary work in recent memory. Not surprisingly the feature film adaptation of the novel has been met with nearly as much resistance, or more, as the source material it is based on. Everyone from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a central administrative organism of the Catholic Church which has insisted that the novel is “full of calumnies, offenses, and historical and theological errors”, to Opeus Dei to an actual organization representing American albinos have chosen to protest the film’s release. In spite of the way the mainstream media has portrayed their ‘fanaticism’, you have to give the Catholic Church some credit. Rather then rioting in the streets, blowing up cars with homemade bombs, setting fires, vandilizing property, and causing mass hysteria and congestion like their European Muslim counterparts during the whole Mohammed cartoon ‘controversy’ earlier this year, the United States Conference of Bishops, the same Christian organization which labeled the Academy Award-winning film Brokeback Mountain as ‘morally offensive’, launched a website and a straight-to-DVD documentary called ‘Jesus Decoded’ seeking to debunk some of the more outrageous claims the Dan Brown novel makes regarding the life of Jesus Christ and the history of the Roman Catholic Church. All this however may be in vein. At its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, the European cinematic elite responded to the film with jeers and hisses of protest. And North American film critics have practically reviled the film with only eightteen percent of one-hundred and fifty-two critics on Rotten Tomatoes recommending it. The Da Vinci Code may well have self-destructed if it were not for the controversy and intrigue surrounding it.

The story for the feature film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code deviates very little from its source material with the exception of course of some minor and inconsequential details (Jacque Saunière is not Sophie Neveu’s real grandfather, for example, and Sophie’s brother was killed in the same car crash that took her mother and father, among other things) and a rather anti-climatic ending. This may be exactly why the movie fails on so many levels. No matter what your personal opinion of author Dan Brown is – whether he is a genius or a huckster, an ingenious writer or a master manipulator – everyone who has read one of his books has to admit that he has this striking ability to craft engaging characters which lead readers to glare over any at all lapses in conventional logic. On paper The Da Vinci Code is an enthralling historical thriller mostly because few people take it all in at once. Stretched over a continuous two hour and thirty-five minute time period however the plot holes and lapses in logic become glaring to even the least observant audience member.

When it was announced that Tom Hanks would play Robert Langdon in director Ron Howard’s feature film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, reportedly beating out Russell Crowe, Bill Paxton, Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Jackman, and George Clooney for the coveted role, many questioned the decision in spite of the two men having worked together before in the Academy Award-nominated film, Apollo 13. Hanks lacked both the physical dexterity and the emotional intensity required for the role, regardless of the dramatic roles he had taken on in the past. Hanks spent more time trying to quell fears by donning an alternative hairstyle, showing it off whenever he could on national television, then actually developing the character of Robert Langdon. Director Ron Howard’s decision to play up Langdon’s claustrophobia far beyond what was necessary for the role was a poor one at best. This particular character element, if it can be called that, is barely mentioned at all in the novel, merely a passing reference early in the book, and yet it is featured prominently throughout the film, especially in three or four key scenes in particular. Yes, we get it! He’s claustrophobic! Let’s move on, shall we? If audiences didn’t grasp it the first time, which was pretty obvious, redoing it several more times the same way as before wasn’t going to do it. The real predicament with Tom Hanks is that he doesn’t bring anything to the role that other actors wouldn’t have brought with them had they been selected. Robert Langdon appears less like the invigorating symbologist readers have come to know him as and more like a little lost puppy afraid to do anything lest he be slapped upside his rear-end with a rolled up newspaper.

Audrey Tautou, barely known outside of France with the lone exception being the independent foreign film Amelie, should have had the most promise in this film’s cast but sadly she does very little, if anything significant, with the role of Sophie Neveu. Much like Hanks she appears entirely lost and confused in this film. This is not a call to deviate solely from the source material but at least do something other then merely translating, in this case rather poorly, from it.

Fans of the novel will be most upset with easily the worst character translation from the book to the silver screen, that being Captain Bezu Feche who, sadly, is transformed from ‘The Bull’ to the ‘The Puppet’ in a manner of speaking. Jean Reno, best remembered for his role opposite Robert De Niro in Ronin, does his best to play up the role with tremendous enthusiasm, demonstrating quite clearly that Feche is not a man to be toyed with. The difference is that in the novel he is portrayed as a man entirely in control of the situation even when it turns out that his assumptions of Robert Langdon’s guilt are wrong. He manipulates his own mistakes in order to catch the real killer, showing his adept intelligence and dedication to his profession and faith. The film however portrays him merely as a pawn of Opeus Dei, the religious affiliation he belongs to.

Sir Ian McKellen is the film’s sole saving grace. He appears as though he is having a blast in the role of Sir Leigh Teabing, a Grail enthusiast with a peculiar vendetta against the Roman Catholic Church and, as the audience ultimately finds out, the catalyst of the film. His delivery of charming one-liners throughout the second half of the picture is of particular highlight. For example, when Robert Langdon is explaining to Sophie Neveu about the blade, or the phallus, being an ancient symbol for male (there is far more behind the meaning of this symbol then either the Harvard professor or the filmmakers let on) and that it is still used by the military today, Teabing interjects, “Yes, and the more penises you have, the higher your rank. Boys will be boys!” And when Teabing’s private jet in met in England with a police escort searching for both Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu who they believe to be on board the plane he quips, “If it's that important to stop us, you'll have to shoot us”, only to point to his man-servant Remy and say, “You can start with him”.

Silias, the Opeus Dei albino monk, and Bishop Aringarosa are two characters who are most dramatically altered from their source material. In the novel they are portrayed as tragic figures, individuals whose flaws – Aringarosa’s is desperation and Silas’s is blind faith – are exploited for evil. This neither condemns nor excuses what they do but leaves readers expressing sympathy toward them because their actions are human which we quickly identify with. The movie on other hand leaves audience members feeling emptiness toward their demise. They are altered in such a way as to totally disconnect them from the audience. We feel neither sadness nor satisfaction toward the fate that ultimately befalls them. Paul Bettany who appeared in Ron Howard’s Academy Award-winning film, A Beautiful Mind, can barely be understood when he speaks and looks nothing like an albino, his skin being barely pale. The depiction of Silias as a murderous fundamentalist Opeus Dei ‘monk’ is greatly distorted by both author Dan Brown and director Ron Howard. First off, Opeus Dei has no monks but rather laymen called numeraries who are advised to avoid practices that may be perceived as fundamentalist to the outside world. And while voluntary self-mortification is a startling tradition certain members of Opeus Dei do practice, it has been around since the 3rd century and therefore is nothing new, having been practice by Mother Teresa herself. Furthermore, the film and the novel which inspired it portray the relationship between the Vatican and Opeus Dei as being unusually close, something that is a complete fabrication. The official definition of personal prelature which the book emphasizes means specifically that they (Opeus Dei) are not linked to a territory but over persons. Alfred Molina’s performance as Bishop Aringarosa is even worse, so over the top as to be unintentionally laughable. Sadly, this is far more interesting then either Hanks or Tautou’s lackluster performances.

As far as history is concerned, it is slaughtered in both the novel and the feature film adaptation. The Last Supper, for example, was a mural commissioned by the Governor of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, in 1495 CE, to serve as a sense of grandeur on the refectory wall of the family chapel and burial place, Monastery Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan. It depicts the famous biblical event as found in the Gospel of John (13:21) in which Jesus Christ revealed to his apostles that one of them would betray him that evening. Sir Leigh Teabing inquiries about the absence of the Holy Grail or the chalice which, according to legend, caught the blood of Christ as he died on the cross the day of his crucifixion and has been sought by kings and nations for centuries. “A bit strange, don’t you think”, he says, “considering that both the Bible and our standard Grail legend celebrate this moment as the definitive arrival of the Holy Grail”. But in truth Sharan Newman says, “it would be much odder if Jesus and the Apostles had a Seder and there was only one cup, since part of the ceremony includes each person drinking four cups of wine – not all at once, I hasten to add”. Additionally, in Jesus’ time it would have been customary for the thirteen men to have been seated at a round table but in order for Renaissance observers to identify more with his painting, Da Vinci placed them at a horizontal table which showed off each apostle’s reaction to the news Jesus conveyed to them that evening. Teabing identifies the individual sitting to the left of Jesus as Mary Magdalene with her “flowing red hair, delicate folded hands, and the hint of a bosom”. The problem conspiracy theorists run into is that with the exclusion of Jesus and John/Mary from the painting, only eleven figures remain. Where is John if the figure next to Jesus is Mary Magdalene? Furthermore, no biblical account of the Last Supper makes any mention of anyone other then Jesus’ twelve apostles making an appearance. But then why the feminine-like feature for the apostle John in the painting? It was common practice. “Raphael and other Italian painters of the time also depicted young men as androgynous”, so it was not uncommon for Da Vinci to have done the same with the apostle John, who was the youngest of the twelve”.

And what about Mary Magdalene herself and how she had been identified by the Church as a prostitute? While it is true that Pope Gregory I erroneously connected Mary Magdalene with the prostitute who appears in the chapter prior to her formal introduction in the Gospel of Luke, it was a simple mistake which has been made numerous times by Christian followers and has since been corrected by biblical scholars. There is no evidence to suggest that this was part of a conspiracy by the Church to defame her character. The idea that Mary Magdalene was of the tribe of Benjamin is also misguided. The village of Magdala where Mary was born is located in northern Israel rather then the south where the tribe of Benjamin resided. Furthermore, Saul, the first king of Israel, who was of the House of Benjamin was killed along with his son and left no living heir, leaving the throne to David of the House of Judah. Even if she was of the House of Benjamin, as a woman Mary Magdalene would have no rightful claim to the throne.

But what of the Church’s abuse of women? Sir Leigh Teabing asserts that the Roman Catholic Church was responsible for the deaths of over five million women who were burned at the stake for being witches. There is no exact figure for the number of people who were killed as a result of the witch trials, estimates range from forty to sixty thousand people, twenty percent of which being men, but the idea that the Roman Catholic Church were responsible for these acts is preposterous. Witch trials were conducted by secular courts, many of which were of Protestant or Puritan denominations. They were a result of hysteria and paranoia, not a conspiracy by the Church to subjugate women. The Malleus Maleficarum or ‘The Witch Hammer’ which some argue is the Church’s official doctrine on witches never received the endorsement of the Roman Catholic Church.

As for the secret society called the Priory of Sion, that too was made up, though not by Dan Brown. The Priory of Sion was an organization originating in France and created by Pierre Plantard who claimed he was a descendant of the Merovingian king, Dagobert II, and rightful heir to the throne of France. His friend Philippe de Cherisey then created the Les Dossiers Secrets to show Plantard’s descent from King Dagobert II. Plantard later admitted under oath that it was all made up. There is historical evidence to suggestion that a secret society in the Middle Ages called the Priory of Sion did indeed exist but that it extended no further then the twelve century.

Historical inaccuracies however are the least of the project’s problems. First, director Ron Howard fails in making expedient use of his exotic European locations. Even though he shoots within the Louve, Rosslyn Chapel, Temple Church, and Westminster Abbey (a substitute was used instead of the actual site because officials refused to allow the filmmakers to shoot there), among others, the audience is left with no sense of grandeur about these historical sites. Second, the film is far too literal. While the book spent a good chunk of time developing its characters emotionally and placing them in extraordinary situations, the feature film adaptation is dialogue driven to the point of being overtly talkative. This leaves the characters feeling bland and uninteresting, especially Robert Langdon who is the lead figure of the picture. The film techniques director Ron Howard uses in The Da Vinci Code, in particular the one he uses to show Professor Robert Langdon deciphering the codes from Jacque Saunière’s cryptic messages, are passé. Fans of his work will quickly realize they have viewed this same technique before in his Academy Award-winning film, A Beautiful Mind. Hans Zimmer’s beautiful musical score is one of the few positive highlights of the film but given that the soundtrack could be downloaded or purchased on a compact disc without the hassle of going to the movie theatre, it is little consolation. In spite of being hailed as one of the most anticipated films of the summer, it is ultimately one of the bigger disappointments this year, something of which is expected to extend till the end of the year. Perhaps too much pressure was placed on Ron Howard and Brian Grazer to deviate too much from the source material lest they upset hard-core fans of the novel. Or maybe studio executives at Paramount were fearful of alienating Christian conservatives who had proven through the box office success of The Passion of the Christ to be an undervalued audience market. Whatever the case may be, The Da Vinci Code fails to live up to the hype placed on it by the mainstream media. Rest assured, the Catholic Church has nothing to lose sleep about if critical response to the film has anything to say about it.