Oldest sin in the book

Posted: May 22, 2006 12:01 AM

For those, like myself, who somehow managed to make dinner party conversation over the past year without reading Dan Brown’s pulpy novel, The Da Vinci Code, following the film’s marketing edict to "seek the truth" proves a pretty laborious business. Forget something as thorny as truth, I’d have been happy just nailing down a clear plot line.

It begins well enough with the murder of an elderly museum curator by a hooded albino monk (hard to get a more cracking start than one that includes a hooded albino monk). With his dying breath the old man manages to strip naked, arrange his body and blood in the likeness of Da Vinci’s "Vitruvian Man," and use his leftover corpuscles to scrawl a message on the marble floor for his friend, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). Unfortunately, the carefully-anagrammed clue has the secondary result of implicating Langdon in the crime.

On the run from inept French police (could French police ever be anything other than inept?) Langdon finds help from the murdered man’s granddaughter, Sophie (Audrey Tautou) and a crippled English colleague, Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan). As the trio compare notes, they discover that they’ve become involved in a cover up that began far before the offing of the aging pagan—it began with the mythical Knights Templar who once upon a time blackmailed the Catholic church to suppress the true role of Mary Magdalene in biblical history.

The Knights then became the Priory of Scion, a secret society that boasts such esteemed past membership as Leonardo Da Vinci, Alexander Pope, and Sir Isaac Newton. Catholic officials in-the-know also formed an underground action committee that became (and this point is repeatedly belabored) the conservative para-church organization, Opus Dei. Opus Dei tries to murder all Magdalene descendents while the Priory of Scion endeavors to protect them.

For some reason, despite the fact that they’ve had hundreds of years to make a bold move, it never occurs to either side to either go public or destroy the evidence. Oh, and for some reason the Roman Emperor Constantine had a hand in launching the whole thing.

If all this seems a bit confusing, its certainly not for lack of explanation.

Director Ron Howard is nothing if not devoted to strict adherence to the novel’s intricacies, and he expends considerable time, with Landgon as his mouthpiece, bringing the audience up to speed. But despite the fact that Howard pulls every visual trick in the book to make his history lessons engaging, Hanks’ summarical monologues are so pedantic, he might as well be drawing timelines on a chalkboard.

Howard expends similarly energy on personal histories. Nearly every character rates a sepia-stained flashback moment. From Robert Langdon’s spill down a well, to Silas the rabbit-eyed monk’s juvenile indiscretions that lead to his fanatic religious devotion, to Sophie’s disturbing encounter with her grandfather’s sex cult, he dutifully gives everyone several minutes to gaze off to their distant pasts. Too bad none of these backgrounds are explored with any depth, so they come off as traffic accidents on the way to a destination rather than as stops on the journey itself.

It may all have made for high entertainment in the schlocky page-turner medium, but translated to celluloid, it becomes a convoluted, didactic mess--and even worse, it becomes a bore.

As for the question of heresy, the film version betrays little evidence for the charge. Heresy has to have some source in church doctrine to be considered an apostate departure from it. But Da Vinci’s Code’s entire theme, if it may be said to possess one, can be summed up in a single comment from Professor Teabing: "The Greatest Story ever told is a lie!" So while the story takes an unquestionably nasty attitude toward Catholicism, it hardly sets itself up as a divergence from accepted dogma, and so seems no more like heresy than atheism.

Even Christ’s alleged descendent sets herself outside the realm of the Church when she hisses at an Opus Dei monk, "Your God doesn’t forgive murderers; he burns them." While Howard reveals a shameful ignorance of the Bible on this point as I immediately came up with three God-forgiven murderers off the top of my head, the point is his protagonist doesn’t consider the monk’s God her God.

At one point Langdon kneels at the burial ground of a Christian figure, but by that time he has made it clear that it is not a heavenly authority he bends his knee for, but the god in all of us: ''Maybe human is divine," he tells Sophie midway through the film.

A more interesting question is why as preposterous a conspiracy theory as this should hold such wide appeal in the first place. Dare we consult Scripture on the subject and suggest its root lies in the oldest sin in the Book—pride. It seems obvious that at least part of the allure for those who take the Da Vinci Code seriously comes from pride that they are smarter, more clued-in than the average, churchgoing Joes and Janes on the street; pride that they alone, this relatively small group of renegades, have unearthed the secrets that duped all previous ages of men; pride that only they possess the intellect to recognize a con that took in entirety of Christendom.

There’s always a thrill to be had at feeling like an insider--especially when one can gain that feeling for the price of reading an airport novel rather than a serious study of liturgical history or, even more difficult, a serious searching of one’s own soul.