We were ripe for this. By “we” I mean American Catholics.
Given the climate of fear that has existed — some say “has been maintained” — since 911, and our post-Watergate cynicism about Institutions (they’re all corrupt), how could we not get into a tizzy over The Da Vinci Code?
At the outset of the discussions, I confess that I found myself muttering, “Hel-LO! Can you say fiction?” I really was a bit baffled by all the people who were sincerely upset by this book and movie. Once I’d read dozens of articles, spent hours Googling “Grail” and “Leonardo da Vinci”, and listened to any number of commentaries and reviews, I wasn’t sure that I had anything new to say.
But then I realized that in The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown didn’t say anything new either.
He wrote a new Grail Quest story. And we’ve had many, some of them made into films like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Some of them like Monty Python’s version were outrageous (but still rather fun.) Here’s an excellent Web site where you can pursue the legends further: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/Camelot/grlmenu.htm.
With that thought in mind, I remember that only the most “worthy” can find the Grail. Is the book’s protagonist, Robert Langdon, worthy? I think in the film, he is. Consider that in the legends, the seekers inevitably must accept that it’s the Quest that’s most important, not the finding.
Our hero comes on the scene in the Louvre fairly unmoved by the sad corpse before him. If you look closely, you’ll see Tom Hanks’ lopsided smile tugging at his mouth as Langdon gets caught up in the fun of the Fibonacci sequence. Never mind that there’s a barely cold body at his feet.
He’s smug. He knows probably more about symbols than anyone alive.
Then we watch how his knowledge is gradually stripped away from him. He learns that his information is useless when confronted by Death. He comes to a gradual awakening and ends in prayer. I was skeptical of the casting of Hanks in the role, but I think he is terrific.
For example, his claustrophobia is very believable. I wondered why director Ron Howard inserted the scene (absent from the book) in the armored truck when he’s “cured.” And I think it’s part of an attempt to make the story more “acceptable” to prayerful people who were distressed by the book.
This need to be acceptable is also apparent in the characterization of the two men from Opus Dei. The two are obviously crazy; Bishop Aringarosa is power hungry and money crazed, and his minion Silas’ flagellation is clearly masochistic rather than spiritual. If you’d like to know more about the penitential practices of some Opus Dei members, here’s the group’s Web site: http://www.opusdei.org.
This brings us to the idea that has proved the most disturbing to readers and viewers: Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife and the mother of his child. Is the film is trying to convince the world of the truth of this “secret?” Again, I think we have to look at who is the dispenser of that “Information.”
In the novel, both Robert and Sir Leigh, the Grail fanatic, explain the legend to the heroine, Sophie. In the film, however, Robert calls it a myth and shares a version punctuated with many disclaimers like “so-called” and “supposed.” Sir Leigh, who is absolutely convinced, is finally shown to be completely insane. Ron Howard wants us to consider the source when weighing the “facts.”
Yet in the scene that ends both the film and the book, Robert is kneeling, praying at what he clearly believes to be the tomb of Mary Magdalene. The key to understanding this, I think beautiful, conclusion comes from an earlier line describing the practices of the Knights Templar.
Their prayer at the tomb was offered on behalf of all of the world’s poor and oppressed.
Ultimately, I think we are supposed to understand that the debate and struggle is less important than the message all of Jesus’ disciples, Mary included, spread to the corners of the world: Our concern must never be for Knowledge, Power or Wealth, only for Love. I can’t think of a better way to conclude the wild and bloody journey.
“I believe readers and movie-goers are a lot smarter than some people would have you believe,” Dan Brown writes on his Web site. I agree. We know that Christian culture has only recently welcomed women to leadership roles, and the church hierarchy is all male, despite the Scriptural evidence of many women who were prominent in Jesus’ ministry.
I believe that we also are still haunted by the harsh division St. Augustine’s writings embedded into Christian theology. He maintained that all things of the Flesh were sinful. Yet, when we profess our belief that Jesus was fully Divine and fully Human, do we say that half of his nature was sinful?
A helpful little resource I came across while wrestling with this and other issues is a pamphlet put out by Our Sunday Visitor entitled “The Da Vinci Code: The facts behind the fiction of the bestselling novel and hit movie.” Hopefully, you will be able to pick one up, or go to www.osv.com/davinci.
If you expect to be upset by the film, you will be. If you hated the book, you probably won’t care for the movie. I enjoyed the book, and I went expecting to be disappointed because I rarely like movie versions of books. Knowing I was going to write this piece for the Courier, I started by jotting down notes as the film got under way.
At some point, however, I stopped taking notes. I found myself caught up in the chase scenes of a “ripping good yarn.” The trick is not to take it seriously.
Palma is an adjunct assistant professor of English at Monroe Community and an adjunct instructor at Nazareth College, both in Rochester. She holds a master of science degree in education from Nazareth and master of arts in theology from St. Bernard’s Institute.