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Issue Date:  June 2, 2006

Deciphering the 'Da Vinci Code'

The movie version of Dan Brown's book is entertaining if unimaginative


The Da Vinci Code has finally appeared. (Previews for reviewers and critics weren’t available until the day before its May 19 release, making it impossible to meet NCR deadlines for an earlier issue.) Because the book is so well-known, its faithfulness to the main storyline cannot help but lessen the impact of what remains a well-executed mystery-thriller. With such backdrops as the Louvre, a French chateau, what appears to be Castel Gandolfo, and a number of ancient churches in France and Great Britain, the late-night movements of symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Paris police-cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) are entertaining and fast-moving, providing a good substitute for expensive travel this summer.

The movie’s opening shots make wonderful use of the figures in the wall paintings that seem to track Sophie’s grandfather, the Louvre museum curator, as he runs past them in a vain attempt to save his life. From this beginning on, the understated orchestral score by Hans Zimmer with its unusual number of strings adds weight and tension to Robert and Sophie’s attempts to find her grandfather’s killer and the reasons for the strange coded messages, all concerning Leonardo da Vinci, traced by the dying victim in his own blood.

Langdon and Sophie cleverly escape the Opus Dei police chief, solving puzzles as they move from car to bank truck to plane, but no romantic spark is kindled between them. The performances of Mr. Hanks and Ms. Tautou are limited by the book’s thin characterizations and dialogue, but the overall acting is effective. Albert Molina is a credible Bishop Aringarosa, head of Opus Dei, and Paul Bettany is memorable as his dedicated tool of a monk, though too much visual attention is given to his self-flagellation. (Such an extreme version of Opus Dei is presented that the organization may gain some sympathy even among liberals.) Ian McKellen as Sir Leigh Teabing gives the most fascinating performance, endearing even when he is murderous, with his obsession to reveal the secret of the Holy Grail that all are searching for. As in the book, the end appears to arrive at least twice before it actually occurs, with Langdon kneeling before the supposed sepulcher of Mary Magdalene deep in the lower regions of the Louvre, the holy spot marked by the convergence of opposing triangles of glass and stone high above.

But what is the connection between the triangles, Leonardo da Vinci and Mary Magdalene? And why have voices in the Vatican been so concerned about the effects of the book and the movie? The thrust of Langdon’s work is toward a restoration of “the divine feminine,” a goal that also seems to have appealed to the over 40 million buyers of Dan Brown’s book. Our male-dominated and overly centralized church leadership, however, is not seriously challenged by the film’s tamed and twisted version of divine femininity.

The evidence that Mary Magdalene married Jesus and carried his child to France is forcefully delivered by the supremely confident Teabing to a passive Sophie, presumably the only remaining descendant of this union. As they stand before a reproduction of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” in his study, he batters the young woman with historical and religious “certainties” about the secret that would destroy the church, while Langdon offers only mild questions. (Langdon does admit to having been brought up Catholic, a detail not present in the book.) Ironically, Sophie as divine feminine looks much like the traditional “woman” in the church, instructed and advised by all-powerful and knowledgeable men.

As for Mary Magdalene, what has happened to the “apostle to the apostles” that biblical scholars, many among them women, have recovered in recent years? Like those scholars, Teabing decries the myth of her as prostitute, but supplants it with one that turns her into wife and mother, carrier of a bloodline that French royalists use to justify their claims. This is a come-down, not an advance, and one that perverts the message of Jesus in the Gospels, who never put family or blood ahead of faith and chosen community.

But Teabing doesn’t care much for the Gospels, preferring Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Philip or the second-century Gospel of Mary (Magdalene). Sophie seems stunned by it all, and by the end has become a partial believer. But her grasp of the historic and religious significance of Teabing’s message is so slight that it reveals itself only in pleasant jokes about not being able to walk on water.

This Holy Grail is hardly a substitute for the mysterious goal of the medieval crusaders, and the evidence for linking Leonardo da Vinci with such a search is nonexistent. The famous “V” to which Teabing points in Leonardo’s “Last Supper” is not a universal symbol of the feminine, nor is the Gospel of Philip evidence for an intimate physical relationship between Jesus and the Magdalene. Though it sometimes uses bridal imagery, Gnostic literature speaks of Jesus as the divine teacher, and not, as Teabing claims, as primarily human. The fragments that exist of the Gospel of Mary give voice to the spiritual vision of the first witness to the Resurrection, not to a love that led to marriage. That is why Peter is jealous of her in this second-century work, which shows stiff-necked authority struggling to maintain control of a divided church by denying both the truth of visions and the right of women to teach. “The Da Vinci Code” points to the right struggle but doesn’t understand its significance, providing both false and incompatible evidence for its own unimaginative goals.

Clearly, we don’t have to take the content of the film seriously. It’s hard to, in any case, since its basic message is crowded into one session at the chateau. Such a rant is better suited to the page than the screen. It’s unclear what viewers will make of it, especially the “sensational” claim that Jesus married Mary Magdalene. At the moment, it seems to be spawning video games, a diet book, DVDs and travel guides for the “Da Vinci” tour.

Fortunately the film does not repeat Dan Brown’s claim that everything in it is factual: art, documents, history. The larger question both book and movie raise, however, concerns the ignorance of so many Christians regarding their own history and religion.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR‘s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2006

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