O Draconian Censors! Oh Lame Script!
REPEAT OFFENDER: The Da Vinci Code (2006)
THE REVIEW: Back in high school, I eagerly looked forward to this film (despite or perhaps encouraged by the presence of protesters in my sleepy little corner of the world). However, the longer I sat there in the theatre the more frustrated I became, as much of the film read as one big apology letter.
At every turn the script sought to soften the blow of its controversial content with increasingly annoying addenda at the end of every factoid. Tom Hanks tosses around “according to all of this”es and “people who believe it’s real”s like apologetic confetti to mitigate the realism of an already convoluted story. The bulk of the plot’s explanation is drowned out by he and Ian McKellen’s characters bickering over history in a useless attempt at downplaying the potential scandal. Seriously? People are shooting at you, every law enforcement agency is out to get you, and a secret society is frothing at the mouth to silence you and you’re going to hem and haw and argue and add asterisks to every little statement in your scholarly infodump? Sure, the film plays fast and loose with history and definitively proving anything based on oral and conflicting accounts can be an academic nightmare, but is Dr. Langdon really going to insist their scholarship be beyond reproach or complain that the conspiracy theories involved are too far-fetched when his life is on the line and time is of the essence?
In addition to making no difference whatsoever to those screaming outside the theatre, this pussyfooting does nothing but weaken the already trite script. Yet the bubble wrapping of the film’s thornier ideas continues with a much more Catholic-friendly Dr. Langdon (complete with prayer-filled childhood trauma) and kinder portrayals of the film’s villains (though, to be fair, the book is already sympathetic to Silas). The sexual aspects of the book are also largely stripped away by a much smaller role for hieros gamos and deemphasizing the sexuality of the divine feminine in favor of a less overt balance of male and female. Brief mentions of women as an alternative path to religious experience are all that remain of the book’s many asides regarding sex as a divine act of transcendence and orgasm as the neurological equivalent of meditation. In addition, the crux of the story is immediately followed by an attempt to reconcile a divine Jesus with the more human acts Opus Dei is trying to keep secret.
By the time Dr. Langdon gives his “the only thing that matters is what you believe” speech to Sophie, saying that the Last Scion should be a force to renew faith rather than shake it, I was ready to throw my replica cryptex at the screen. So much for Sir Teabing’s fanatical pleas to “explode the truth onto the world.” It is with an equivocating whimper, not a bang, that The Da Vinci Code’s mystery unravels.
This, coupled with numerous “No, it doesn’t say that”s and “It can’t be”s make the film’s dialogue by far the weakest aspect of the movie. However, credit must be given as the script does take a very exposition-heavy, word game and puzzle-laden story and manage to translate it into a big-screen thriller that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat. This is helped greatly by the use of visual aids for non-visual elements such as anagrams and other puzzles. Somehow this manages not only to avoid being gimmicky, but the scene in London showing historical events superimposed over modern day pedestrians manages to express far more about history’s lingering impact shaping the present than any of the quasi-meaningful speeches on the matter.
And no script, no matter how flawed, could take the life out of such a stellar cast. I don’t think anyone can say that Tom Hanks or Ian McKellen have ever been bad in anything. Tom Hanks brings a likable and suitably humble quality to Dr. Robert Langdon and Ian McKellen manages to keep Sir Leigh Teabing from being too much of a caricature. He remains instead a delightful and charming cliche (though his manic rants as the police take him away are a bit over the top). Audrey Tautou gives a feisty yet vulnerable performance as Sophie Neveu that is quintessentially French (at least to my untrained American eye). Though the chemistry between Tautou and Hanks is more gentle and affectionate than passionate, it’s not difficult to imagine her as a vessel of semi-divine, symbolic femininity.
Despite a weak script and a strong bout of artistic cowardice, The Da Vinci Code is a solidly entertaining movie, made all the more epic by a strong cast, history-soaked backdrops, and an impeccable soundtrack by Hanz Zimmer, all of which culminate in a surprisingly moving final scene with Tom Hanks kneeling before the Holy Grail hidden deep within the heart of the Louvre. Worth the price of admission certainly, but hardly worth all of the drama.
THE CONTROVERSY: The much anticipated and dreaded movie adaptation of The Da Vinci Code caused worldwide outrage, eliciting strong backlash, global protests, book burnings, calls for censorship or outright bans, even a hunger strike in India and health concerns in the UK. The blockbuster was accused of being everything from blasphemy to terrorism to pornography and received a variety of R or NC ratings.
The Vatican, as well as numerous other groups and theatre companies called for a boycott of the film, the ending was cut and several subtitles were altered in Thailand, and a disclaimer was added for Indian audiences. Despite originally passing the censors, the film was later pulled in China. In addition, The Da Vinci Code was outright banned in numerous countries, including Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Fiji, Samoa, and parts of India. Additionally, in India, the film had Muslims and Christians protesting side by side, united against a common enemy.
Much of the controversy surrounding the film was touched upon in my review of the book. Such a violent overreaction is hardly necessary for a fictional murder mystery. The giant worldwide tantrum, in addition to being free publicity, doth protest too much, lending more credence than critique to what is a creatively plausible but not academically sound plot. Those who take offense would be better off letting the phenomenon blow over, rather than fanning the flames, or calmly pointing out the inaccuracies like many a smug or irked movie-goer has done since the dawn of film.
The film encountered much more reasonable criticism from NOAH (The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation), which expressed concern over the albino character, Silas; his portrayal; and how his character may reflect on those with albinism. Though the film did not change their portrayal of Silas as NOAH might have wished, I, personally, feel that his role was not all that negative. Though a villain, the book already paints Silas with the most understanding and sympathetic brushstrokes of any of its antagonists. It is clear from both the book and movie that Silas was driven to crime and into the arms of a manipulative order by the violence, superstition, and prejudice he was met with. This shifts much of the responsibility for his actions onto a society that judges albinism rather than on the albino character himself.
The dynamic and talented Paul Bettany gives an unflinching and deeply tortured performance, from the disturbing and contested instances of self-flagellation to his shock at accidentally killing his spiritual mentor to his self-hatred and guilt in a death scene that the audience is clearly supposed to feel remorse over. To me, this character shows prejudice rather than being prejudiced. The main problem with Silas’s portrayal is its medical inaccuracy. Given that albinism often goes hand in hand with visual impairments, Silas’s ability to shoot down secret cult leader after secret cult leader with deadly accuracy and hold his own in a firefight with law enforcement officers beggars belief.
Despite largely negative reviews and a veritable maelstrom of international freak-outs, The Da Vinci Code was as explosive in the box office as it was on the picket line, coming in as the second highest grossing global release of all time, right behind Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (clearly outrage is no impediment to sales).