by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - June 5, 2006) What The Da Vinci Code succeeds in doing, probably inadvertently, is to confirm the suspicions that many of us have of the Church. We know it has always shown us two faces; one pious, comforting, and spiritual; the other, cruel, menacing, and vindictive. From the carnage of the Crusades, to the era of the Inquisition, through the Salem Witch Trials and right up to the present-day scandals of widespread sexual abuse, we have sensed there was a diabolical undertow behind all that sanctity. The Da Vinci Code, in suggesting that even in its origins it was steeped in conspiracy and deceit, plays to these subconscious fears. The notion that Jesus Christ was not only a mortal but one who took the dubious Mary Magdalene to his bed and produced progeny is a powerfully subversive hypothesis and one that undermines centuries of Christian doctrine. The pros and cons of that hypothesis is too labyrinthine for anyone but a biblical scholar to untangle, but it is a powerful dramatic premise on which to base a book or assemble a film and it is what gives The Da Vinci Code the power it has.
What drains the film and weakens the novel is the melodramatic excess of Dan Brown's plot which, in constantly seeking to astonish both the reader and the filmgoer, ultimately creates more twists and turns than either genre can effectively sustain. One feels, 'round about the last third of the novel, and the last twenty minutes of the film, that the desire continually to surprise becomes something of an end in itself. It is slightly more acceptable in the book because, whereas thrillers can be page turners over a period of days or weeks, a film is obliged to simply start and finish. It is difficult, if not impossible, to suspend disbelief over two-and-a-half hours of a movie without becoming aware of the crunch of the clockwork.
The film is further weakened by the casting of Tom Hanks as the Harvard professor Robert Langdon, the story's central protagonist. Hanks is a kind of 21st century Everyman, as James Stewart or Spencer Tracy were in the preceding century. But Dan Brown's Langdon is depicted as a highly cerebral academic, an egghead of the first order; the kind of role that Leslie Howard or George Sanders might have played in films 60 or 70 years ago. Hanks is charming, casual, and eminently bankable but, as a brilliant historian and avatar of symbology, strains credibility. He is not aided in his various quests by Sophie Neveu, a strikingly dark French actress whose range is so limited she brings to mind Dorothy Parker's quip about Katherine Hepburn "running the gamut of emotions from A to B." Lacking credibility in the two major roles makes the untangling of the torturous narrative meander rather than gallop. Ian McKellan mercifully arrives to dispense some comic irony as Leigh Teabing, a wealthy British scholar and obsessive seeker after the Holy Grail (obviously weaned on Noel Coward), but his metamorphosis from comedy relief to diabolical villainy is merely an arbitrary authorial parlor trick which, in the overheated last twenty minutes of the film, diverts one's attention to the rattle of popcorn containers and the need to pee.
Director Ron Howard has taken on the unenviable task of converting a runaway best-seller into an equally momentous cinematic experience and, although he is adept at framing shots and jerking his camera from one part of a chase to another, one senses he is simply not up to delivering the intellectual freight which Dan Brown has packed into the novel. Ultimately only fancy camera work and quick cuts are relied on to convey a story that cries out for a sustained depth of focus.
But it would be chary of me not to recognize that the controversy which both the book and the film have ignited comes from a provocative premise that subverts the general public's deeply-rooted belief in traditional Christianity and, in this era of shoot-'em-ups and mind-numbing special effects, that is something of a comfort. Had Mel Gibson dealt with the same material, he might have created a Hammer Film version replete with gore and gougings, tactfully sidestepping the subversive anti-religious message at the heart of the novel. But then, had someone like Ingmar Bergman or Orson Welles been turned loose on the material, either one might have turned a murder mystery rich in nuance into a devastating work of cinematic art.
Dan Brown's book is a critique of a certain sinister religiosity disguised as a conventional thriller. It is as if Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Conan Doyle had decided to collaborate on a book together but neither was prepared to adapt their respective talents to those of the other. The result is a work which is stylistically unbalanced in which sub-text overrides text and the readers can tune in one or the other depending on their preferences. That kind of amalgam can make for a fascinating read but tends to produce a top-heavy movie. Novels can assimilate thematic irregularities more easily than movies because of the extended time period in which they are experienced. But compressed into rigid time limits, films are obliged to be of one genre or the other. Had The Da Vinci Code wholeheartedly been a biblical exposé, it might have been magnificent, but obliged to follow the zigzag path of a murder mystery, its effect is necessarily attenuated.
Carl Dryer's The Passion of Joan of Arc is a useful case in point. It is both a religious drama and a mystery. The "drama" concerns the doctrinal cruelty of the Church against non-conformity, and the "mystery," the spiritual motivation of its heroine who is prepared to sacrifice her life for a spiritual obsession. But there is no "dissociation of sensibility" in the film. It is a moral fable based on historical records and doesn't trail off into romance, domesticity, or violence for its own sake. It is all of a piece and produces a moral reverberation which is compelling. The Da Vinci Code can be taken either as a murder-mystery or an indictment of the church; or, if you like, an unconventional love story in which the hero is too intimidated by his partner's aura to "get the girl." Who wouldn't think twice about entering into a liaison with an ancestor of Mary Magdalene? My cinematic companion suggested that if Director Howard had real ingenuity for Mlle. Neveu, after discovering she was in the bloodline stemming from Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene and therefore would forever be a subject of dissension and controversy, a conversion to Judaism might have been the wisest option. But even levity of that kind coming out of a film like The Da Vinci Code says something about its aftertaste.
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