An ordinary man–a professor, say–gets caught in a deadly game of mystery and murder. He’s thrown together with a cool, attractive young woman who may be more than she seems. After many chases and escapes, the two wind up safe in each other’s arms.
Alfred Hitchcock gave us goosebumps with that theme and variations. Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code turns similar material into a big yawn. What happened?
You can start with Tom Hanks’s rendition of Robert Langdon, the Harvard “symbology” professor in Dan Brown’s bestselling novel. A few decades ago, Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, playing the man dragged into the chase, would loudly have protested, “This is crazy!” or “You got the wrong man!” But Hanks is unaccountably distant. He looks uncomfortable throughout, like he’s holding a plastic wineglass at a business reception and longs to be anywhere else.
The drama’s inertness is compounded by the decision to eliminate any hint of romance between Langdon and the plucky Sophie Neveu. The novel ended with a passionate kiss, but the movie ends with an avuncular smack on the forehead and a see-ya-later. Audrey Tatou, as Sophie, is a mismatch for Hanks anyway–too short, too cute, too young. She’s adorable when she tucks her hair behind one round mouse-like ear, but she’s no Grace Kelly. She lacks the Hitchcock ladies’ sangfroid, so, as a substitute, she spits out her lines in a guttural snarl, emphasizing words at random and looking grim. As George Sanders told Anne Baxter in All About Eve, “You’re too short for that gesture.”
The first hour, though very busy (and bloody), is so packed with verbal exposition and so lacking in character dynamics that it plods laboriously. It feels like a droning afternoon class, where you have to pay attention because this is going to be on the test. A bright spot is the editing, which is impressive right from the opening sequence, as the film cuts between scenes of Sauniere’s murder and those of Langdon’s book lecture. But if the first thing you can find to praise in a film experience is the editing, the second is likely to be theater décor.
The movie gains a bit of zip when Ian McKellen arrives, in the role of the wealthy, eccentric Grail-nut, Sir Leigh Teabing. He makes a striking entrance as he comes bobbling down a stair supported by two slim black canes, a pleasingly kinetic image. In some ways it’s like “Nude Descending a Staircase,” and in other ways, not, which is just as well.
As Teabing and Langdon load Sophie up with Grail lore, more differences between movie and novel become apparent. In the book, it’s all about sex: “The ancients believed that the male was spiritually incomplete until he had carnal knowledge of the sacred feminine.” (This seems a bit hard on gays, and especially on Da Vinci himself, hailed in the book as “a flamboyant homosexual.” As supposed leader of the Priory of Sion, he would have been required to perform ritual sex with his wife [?] before a circle of masked observers. No wonder he spent so much time in his studio.) In theory, I suppose, a woman is likewise incomplete until she has sex with the sacred masculine, though Brown doesn’t state this outright. I wish he had, because the response from feminist organizations would have been fun to watch.
This sex stuff might have nudged some theatergoers awake, but it’s been removed from the plot. Now the supposed reason that Christ’s marriage to St. Mary Magdalene was concealed is because it would be proof of his “mortality.”
Characters had to say this several times before I figured out what they were trying to express. Apparently the idea is that, if Christ was married, then he didn’t rise from the dead. Which is nonsense. The Bible, in fact, doesn’t say that Jesus never married, though if he had it probably would have popped up in the communal memory somewhere. If it turns out that that detail somehow slipped the first evangelists’ minds, it would make no difference to the Christian claims. Great teachers, male and female, have come and gone through the millennia, and their marital status was rarely relevant. What makes Jesus different is that he’s something more than an instructive memory; on the contrary, he keeps manifesting himself to people, even today, as an undeniable living presence. He keeps giving people first-hand proof that he is alive.
Not everyone gets an experience like this (like I did, 32 years ago–a theophany to an entrenched anti-Christian that was so overwhelming that doubt has been impossible ever since). But those who have such experiences are charged to tell others. And that’s just what St. Mary Magdalene did. She was the first person to see the resurrected Lord, and immediately went and preached the news. For this she is honored with the title “Equal to the Apostles.”
The movie’s premise, that the Church degraded St. Mary Magdalene and concealed her tomb, is such a whopper that it deprives the plot of traction; only the completely ignorant can maintain such extreme suspension of disbelief. St. Mary Magdalene was so beloved and admired that both Ephesus and Provence claim she spent her final years evangelizing among them, and her relics–far from hidden–were enshrined and venerated in both locations. She’s honored as a great saint, named patroness of churches and convents, pictured in icons, and celebrated with liturgical hymns. How ignorant of history would you have to be not to know this?
So the movie’s plot is even more of a muddle than the book’s. (And as a friend told me, the book is so ahistorical that she had to pretend it was a sci-fi work about an alternative reality just to get through it.) In the movie, St. Mary’s relics are “the source of God’s power on earth.” (Huh?) What’s more, when their location is revealed it will prove Jesus Christ was “mortal.” (How? And, aside from the non sequitur, how could her bones prove that she had ever married at all? Or anything whatever about him?) Christianity would be threatened, because scientific testing could establish that some living human was her descendant. (So what? And even if St. Mary’s descendants were found, how could tests identify the father?) Christians eradicated the earlier pagan faith, which had worshipped “many male gods and one divine feminine.” (This describes no religion I’ve ever heard of; ancient Rome knew as many goddesses as gods.) A religious war ensued, and Robert and Teabing disagree on who started it. (The Roman Empire’s pagans did; official persecution of Christians–the torture and murder sort–abounded over the course of 300 years.) Langdon insists to Sophie that, when it comes to spiritual realities, “What matters is what you believe.” (Gee, even with Tinkerbelle you had at least to clap.) But when it comes to historical realities, it’s vital that objective truth be revealed. (And that supposedly suppressed truth stands on the shaky stilts of two ambivalent references in documents written a hundred years or more after the Biblical Gospels.) Langdon opines that St. Mary Magdalene “could have” written the Gospel in her name. (Yeah, like Judas wrote “the Gospel of Judas.”)
Even within the logic of the story, it’s not logical. The evil bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina, who oozes presence–this contrasts with Hanks, who oozes absence) says that when he finds the evidence he will destroy it; Sauniere, responsible for protecting the evidence, seals it in a device that, if mishandled, will destroy it. He ends up spending his dying moments writing riddles for Sophie that are kind of hard, but not very; they don’t insure that she alone could decipher them, or even that she’ll be able to decipher them at all. Both Aringarosa and Silas (Paul Bettany) are complex figures in the book, with some touching attributes; here they’re just plain evil. (And the movie Silas is not an albino, he’s a blond–a surfer without a tan.) Sophie hisses at Silas, “Your God doesn’t forgive murderers. He burns them!” (Nope, the most basic Christian teaching is that God freely and completely forgives all who repent. But it’s kind of creepy to discover that theological revisionists are this eager for a wrathful, punishing God.) The film’s violence is absurdly gratuitous: when a flight controller is slow in giving Captain Fache information, he breaks his nose, knocks him down, and then starts kicking him. Was Howard afraid the audience might be getting bored?
So skip buying a ticket, and wait to rent this movie some night when you’re in the perfect mood to get a lecture from a conspiracy-minded blowhard. In the meantime, you can mull this over. The Da Vinci theory has everybody talking about where St. Mary Magdalene’s bones are. How come nobody asks where Jesus Christ’s bones are?
— Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.