At the Movies

Michael Wood

  • The Da Vinci Code directed by Ron Howard
    May 2006

The great secret of Ron Howard’s movie version of The Da Vinci Code has nothing to do with murders, cryptology, the Templars, Opus Dei, Mary Magdalene, or the idea that Christ might have been a practising heterosexual. It’s a masterly piece of Hollywood hokum, spoiled only slightly by the fact that it appears to be taking itself seriously.

Paranoid delusions in Howard’s A Beautiful Mind were like being in a pretty good spy movie with Ed Harris. This time self-reflexivity takes an extra step. What we have are inserts of ancient footage of, among other long-gone events, the crucifixion, the Crusades, the fall of the Roman Empire, the massacre of the Templars, and the Council of Nicaea. It’s all a little grey and grainy, washed out in places, but then the stock must be very old, and there are some nice splashes of colour, especially the reds and indigos. These are unmistakably moving (and talking) pictures, presumably long buried in some tomb whose discovery might have saved the Lumière brothers quite a bit of trouble. In a ruined church somewhere near Cinecittà, perhaps. There’s the real conspiracy, and the deep symbological meaning of the flashback. There was always a back to flash to. The movies always existed, they were already everywhere, but no one knew it. It’s the greatest cover-up in human history, to quote Ian McKellen quoting Dan Brown.

During the Cannes screening of the film critics are said to have laughed when a crowd of bewigged ghosts shows up for Newton’s funeral in Westminster Abbey, forcing the live characters to elbow their way through the shades to continue their quest for the holy grail. Of course the scene is inept, and all the sadder for the moviemakers’ manifest pride in its ingenuity. But it does continue the message. No scene without a camera, even in the 18th century, and if he had wanted to Howard could have shown not only the ghosts coming back but the original scene itself, complete with Voltaire taking notes.

Of course Howard and his screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, will say that they had far more modest aims, that they were merely solving problems of exposition, and trying to speed up the delivery of the pseudo-historical background that takes up so much of the book: ‘Constantine decided something had to be done. In 325 AD, he decided to unify Rome under a single religion’; ‘With Dagobert’s murder, the Merovingian bloodline was almost exterminated. Fortunately, Dagobert’s son, Sigisbert, secretly escaped the attack.’ And since their narrative structure calls for so many flashbacks – a young woman’s memories of her parents and her grandfather, our hero’s memories of being stuck in a well, an assassin’s memories of killing his father, and much else – perhaps they just got carried away, wandered from the personal to the collective archive. But nobody who believes in conspiracy theories will believe that. And if you don’t believe in them, why would you see the movie or read the book?

Well, you might enjoy conspiracy theories as fictions or metaphors, you might even enjoy the sight of fictional conspiracies as metaphors for real ones. But that thought seems . . . er . . . heretical. In all the clutter of failed controversy that has surrounded the book and now surrounds the movie, one thing is clear. No one is joking. This is a shame, since Dan Brown’s novel, among much ponderousness, has some good gags. The name of Leigh Teabing, his grail scholar who wishes the all-too-human secret of Christ’s straightness to be revealed, alludes directly and by anagram to the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail: Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent, who recently sued Brown’s publisher for plagiarism and lost. The third author, Henry Lincoln, didn’t sue. The book itself is mentioned in large capitals, and Teabing comments on it pedantically (‘their fundamental premise is sound’). Of course Brown was playing these games long before the case came up. Perhaps the two authors were suing for intertextuality. In the novel, Robert Langdon, the Harvard scholar played by Tom Hanks in the movie, has a fine nonsensical riff on the presence of Mary Magdalene and ‘the subjugated goddess’ in modern popular culture, and what we might call the Walt Disney code (‘Like Leonardo, Walt Disney loved infusing hidden messages and symbolism in his art’). Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut appears in the novel as a half-failed attempt to portray the workings of a secret grail society: ‘Sadly, the filmmakers had gotten most of the specifics wrong, but the basic gist was there.’ This is amiable mischief, but the movie can’t manage even this. When visual references to Kubrick’s work appear in it, they are not a joke but a form of shorthand. Orgy, get it?

The movie has its moments, but it’s too worried about its notionally explosive content to have much fun. Ian McKellen does what he can, but he twinkles a bit too much, and the effect is roughly that of Richard III trying out for the role of Santa Claus. Audrey Tautou bravely looks as dim as she is supposed to while other people explain things to her, but that’s all she has to do. Tom Hanks looks angry when he is supposed to look baffled. Or maybe he’s angry because he’s baffled. His lecture in Paris at the beginning of the movie certainly confirms this reading. The informed American scholar wises up the narrow Europeans. He shows a slide, invites audience members to identify a figure or meaning, and in each case, with sour satisfaction, tells them they are wrong. The problem is that they are not multicultural enough. They see a mother and child and they think of the Madonna, forgetting all about Isis. They see a swastika and think of the Nazis, ignoring ancient Persia and India. The lecturer pursues the same strategy through image after image. All Langdon says in the novel is: ‘I’m here tonight to talk about the power of symbols.’

This is where the Council of Nicaea comes in, ‘a famous ecumenical gathering’, as Brown says, and where the whole story takes a swerve from the one the novel tells. In the novel the Council is where the grand cover-up takes place, Christ the charismatic leader (and family man) becomes Christ the Son of God, and the rest is Christian history. Langdon gives ‘a soft nod of concurrence’ to this claim, but in the movie Hanks argues with it. Surely Christ’s divinity was established well before that? And the movie, unlike the novel, does grasp the nettle of the incarnation. It’s not that Christ was human then divine. He was always human, even in the strictest theology, and atheists and believers agree on this. The atheists think he was only human, while the believers see him as human and divine, God made flesh. Hanks at least gets the reverse side of this paradox when late in the movie he slips casually into Renaissance philosophy: ‘Maybe to be human is to be divine.’

And since we have the footage of the Council of Nicaea, a brilliant mob scene with a lot of turbans and people all talking at once, something like the House of Commons tricked out as the Western idea of the Arabian Nights, we realise that the movie’s cover-up is only notionally to do with Christ. What’s being denied and repressed, what the Catholic Church, or at least one of its more sinister devotees, is willing to kill to keep down, is sheer noisy diversity, the very idea of the ecumenical. Women’s rights, the White Goddess, respect for foreigners, religious tolerance, real democracy, liberal Hollywood, whatever a tyrannical, monolithic establishment may be supposed to be against: this is what died symbolically at Nicaea, and this is the movie’s grail, whatever the storyline says. For Constantine, in the movie, read neo-con. Although as the movie shows us when McKellen, as Teabing, goes barking mad, we shouldn’t be too single-minded about multiculturalism.

When it’s not being solemn the movie does occasionally manage to be scary. Paul Bettany, as Silas the Opus Dei operative, who kills the last four holders of the secret of the grail’s location, hoping then to find the grail himself and destroy it, thereby making sure that orthodoxy will reign unchallenged, has a nightmarish glaze to his eyes, and the film lingers lovingly on his self-torture with cilice and whip, and on the leaking welts on his back and thigh, as if this were where everyone’s heart is. How could you not be haunted by a villain who is himself so haunted? It’s true that he speaks Latin with subtitles, which edges his story towards Monty Python, but it’s a tribute to the actor’s poise and the director’s concentration that the scariness survives. In much of the commentary surrounding the film, we are told that the members of Opus Dei are not monks, and that many of them do not practise any kind of self-mutilation. This is good news, and manifestly true: Silas’s control in the movie, to speak spy lingo, is the wonderfully corpulent and unctuous Alfred Molina, a bishop and president-general of Opus Dei, who can’t ever have punished himself by missing a meal in Lent, let alone with a spot of flagellation. That this oily figure is directing a hurting fanatic through a series of killings, that his own present and future comfort rests on so much deprivation and austerity, is a story all by itself, and it scarcely matters what the murders are about. Whatever it is, Molina might say or sing with Groucho Marx, I’m against it.