Critics pan The Da Vinci Code

By  John Thavis, Catholic News Service
  • May 17, 2006

{mosimage}CANNES, France - Toward the end of the movie The Da Vinci Code, the main character, Robert Langdon, tells his sleuthing partner, Sophie Neveu: "You are the last living descendent of Jesus Christ."

That line, meant to be the dramatic apex of the film, drew laughs from many of the approximately 900 journalists who viewed the film's first press screening May 16 at the Cannes Film Festival.

The derisive laughter, along with widely critical comments from reporters afterward, summed up the Cannes press reaction to the much-heralded launch of the movie. When the credits ran, silence and a few whistles drove home the response.

The movie sticks to most of the book's controversial religious elements, while softening some of the edges.

Directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, it faithfully depicts the novel's story of intrepid American "symbologist" Langdon, who follows a coded trail leading to a supposedly age-old secret: that Christ was not necessarily divine, that He was married to Mary Magdalene and that their descendents survive today.

The church is the bad guy in this conspiracy-theory version of Christianity, and is depicted as suppressing all evidence of Jesus' alleged marriage.

But one striking difference about the movie is that it lacks anything resembling the famous "fact" page that prefaced the novel, in which author Dan Brown claimed that "all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." The film doesn't make any claim to accuracy of any kind — artistic, historical, religious or biblical.

Brown's preface also made a point of saying the Priory of Sion, the novel's organizational keeper of the secret, was real — even though it was unmasked as a fraud years ago. The film keeps the Priory of Sion as the protagonist of the mystery, but — unlike the book — has Langdon protest at one point that the priory was a known hoax.

All this tends to underline that the movie is a work of fiction and to deflate some of the historical assertions that irritated critics of the book.

While the movie's portrayal of the Catholic Church is distinctly unflattering, its treatment of the Catholic organization Opus Dei is particularly negative. The novel placed Opus Dei in the middle of the church's nefarious efforts to keep secret the "truth" about Christ, and had a cruel Opus Dei member commit several murders in the process.

Unlike the book, the movie keeps its distance from the Vatican. Instead, unidentified prelates in a sinister "Council of Shadows" pull strings in order to cover up the secret life of Jesus. Their secret meeting room is outfitted with a billiard table.

The film retains several of the claims considered outrageous by many Catholic critics: that the Bible as we know it was collated by the "pagan" emperor Constantine; that alternative gospels recounting the real life of Jesus were suppressed; and that church ritual borrows heavily from pagan mystery religions. But the film puts these and other claims into the mouth of Leigh Teabing, the story's true villain, and at several points has Langdon skeptically questioning these assertions.

The movie's historical flashbacks illustrating these supposedly dark chapters of church history were so overdone that they provoked catcalls during the first Cannes screening. Early reviews from the Cannes screening gave the movie decidedly low marks. Its biggest sin, according to many critics, was that it was dull.

The movie opens worldwide May 19.

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