The Da Vinci Formula

So little sex, but so many climaxes!

By Steve Burgess 20 May 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Bettany as Silas: Albinos are the new dark.

Man, if albino monks ever get a lobby group together, look out Hollywood. They sure take a beating in Ron Howard's film of The Da Vinci Code -- and like it, too. It just goes to show how far you have to stretch these days to find a minority group you can pick on.

The inevitable film of Dan Brown's fluke publishing miracle presented real problems for the blockbuster movie industry. How to illustrate a blasphemous potboiler, especially so soon after Mel Gibson proved the big money lies not in tweaking Christians, but courting them?

Well, you start by trying to make nice. Akiva Goldsman's screenplay for The Da Vinci Code has more disclaimers than a carton of cigarettes. The Vatican is not at fault for the crimes depicted here, we are told, and Tom Hanks assures us that belief in a divine Jesus is a great thing too. The movie struggles to have it both ways, even throwing in quick technical denials of some of Dan Brown's falsehoods, just before accepting the same falsehoods in order that the plot may continue. There's an apologetic tone to the movie, as if Howard and company are saying, "Yes, we know we were saddled with some sloppy work here. But play along, OK? It'll be fun."

And is it? Sometimes. Personally I was grateful to spend so much time in the company of Audrey Tautou (playing gumshoe Sophie Neveu), and Hanks (as "symbologist" Robert Langdon) is always an amiable companion. But The Da Vinci Code sure wears out a pair of pants. And few pieces of summer entertainment have ever been so difficult to take at face value.

Monks with guns

But oh, those albino monks. Silas, as personified by Paul Bettany with contact lenses and lots of Reverse Grecian Formula, is a rough customer. Likes to whup himself, and back before the internet it seems the hard-line Catholic sect Opus Dei was the best way to meet folks who share those interests. Note to future albino Opus Dei monks: try a little less whupping and a little more target practice. After Silas shoots an old curator at the Louvre, the victim takes so long to die that he is able to set up lots of puzzles, enough puzzles to satisfy a convention of Sudoku fans. If only he could have said, "I'm not dead yet…"

But that would be inviting comparison to a much better Holy Grail movie. At any rate, the mortally-wounded old guy has enough time to paint the Mona Lisa in blood. He has enough time to send out blood-addressed cards to the FBI and Scotland Yard explaining the whole plot.

OK, maybe not that much time. It's a long plot. Happily it includes Sir Ian McKellen, who's a lot of fun. As Sir Leigh Teabing, he's a bundle of infectious enthusiasm, all aflame to follow that Grail trail. Damn near convinces us we're having a swell time.

For a movie with so little sex, The Da Vinci Code sure has a lot of climaxes. I counted at least three, although to be fair the last one is an anti-climax. By the time it arrives, you may be on your own quest for any leftover popcorn kernels that fell inside your shirt. Buy an extra-large bag.

What would Jesus say?

This movie suffers from the problem common to most adaptations of bestsellers -- the book's success gives it undue influence over the film. Directors must include the details fans expect to see, which can lead to serious cinematic bloat. (Hello, Harry Potter.)

Still, there were times when, against all expectations, I found myself accepting The Da Vinci Code as the straightforward thriller its authors swear it to be. The cast helps, and the production values are high. But trying to untangle harmless fiction from irresponsible fabrication while simultaneously trying to calculate the amount of havoc the Da Vinci industry is playing with real-life theological debate is a postmodern problem more complex than the movie itself.

To say, "It's just fiction," is disingenuous at this point -- Brown's book made wildly erroneous historical claims and insisted they were true. Consider: the whole conspiracy hinges on the existence of the Priory of Sion, which Brown states is a real, ancient organization. It isn't. The Priory of Sion was nothing more than a shabby hoax based on forged documents, perpetrated by a couple of Frenchmen in the 1950s and later repudiated by its authors in sworn court testimony. It was no more real than Hitler's diary.

The movie acknowledges this in passing when Hanks' character protests that the Priory of Sion "documents" were proven fake. As indeed they were. But Sir Ian quickly ripostes that this was just a cover story, and we're off down the rabbit hole once more. McKellen blurts out more scholarly "facts" which are simply untrue, tossed together with real facts in a sort of spinach-and-shit salad. To call this simple fiction is dishonest. The Da Vinci Code products are like those pathological liars who mix in snippets of truth to slip the bullshit past.

Saddest of all is that below all the crap, The Da Vinci Code is peddling a worthy idea. The argument that Jesus ought to be seen as an important human being, appreciated for his message, rather than as some kind of magical deity, is an important one -- one I wish more people would embrace. Too bad it is delivered here by such an unreliable narrator.

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's at-large cultural critic.  [Tyee]

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