The Da Vinci Code
The controversial film adaptation of Dan Brown's bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code brings the worlds of religion, art, literature and history together on the big screen. Taking a look at this convergence from an academic perspective, five Hofstra professors shared their expert opinions on the results.
STEPHANIE COBB (Religion) | CLAIRE LINDGREN (Fine Arts) | RUTH PRIGOZY (English)
CRAIG RUSTICI (English) | PHYLLIS ZAGANO (Religion)
Department of Religion
Dan Brown's wildly popular novel The Da Vinci Code has finally been made into a movie, and the process seems to have involved a change in billing – from fact to fiction – as well as in substance. In the novel, Brown insinuated that his description of early Christianity was historically accurate. In an interview on The Today Show, however, director Ron Howard and actor Tom Hanks emphasized the movie's fictitious nature. What is more intriguing, however, are the changes made to one scene that (dare I say?) may reflect the influence of New Testament scholars.
In the novel, when Leigh Teabing explains the "truth" of the Holy Grail to Sophie Neveu, he states that although Constantine never converted to Christianity, he was responsible for establishing both the New Testament and Jesus' divinity. These assertions are uncontested in the novel, but in the movie, Langdon (rightly) challenges them. Baldly stated, Constantine does seem to have converted to Christianity, though he may not have rejected all of his previously held beliefs; he requested copies of the New Testament be made, but he was not involved in the decision about which books made it in (in fact, scholars date the fixing of the canon to 367 C.E., some 50 years after Constantine's death); he did not convene the Council of Nicaea to vote on Jesus' divinity (which was already accepted by most Christians), but to discuss the relationship of his divinity to his humanity (the Council, by the way, affirmed both).
Teabing's more salacious claims about Jesus' relationship to Mary Magdalene are based on late (written perhaps a century after the New Testament Gospels) and fragmentary Gospels. In short, we have no evidence that Jesus was married (importantly, even the Gospels quoted by Teabing do not make this assertion).
It's difficult to grade this movie on the basis of its claims about the New Testament and early Christianity, so instead I'll offer a prediction about how the main characters would do in my New Testament class: Leigh Teabing would likely fail because he has confused early and late sources, made illogical leaps, and is, in general, too taken with conspiracy theories. Robert Langdon would do much better – perhaps a B – because he understands the complexity of the issues involved. Sophie Neveu, however, has the best chance at an A: she has nothing to unlearn about early Christian history.
My advice: see the movie for entertainment not education.
Department of Fine Arts
To complement and illustrate the script, art is used, misused and manipulated in the film. In one of the earliest scenes, Sauniere – fleeing his assassin – is shown racing through the Louvre passing David's "Oath of the Horatii" whose iconographical message extols duty as a cause worthy of self sacrifice.
Sauniere's final act, in an attempt to fulfill his duty, is to arrange himself in death to replicate Leonardo's "Vitruvian Man", itself symbolic of the ideal man. The "Mona Lisa" is presented as an example of a male/female synthesis; it is true that androgynous representations abound in Leonardo's oeuvre, but must one discount Vasari's 16th-century statement that Leonardo executed that unfinished portrait for Francesco del Giocondo, Mona Lisa's husband? Fast forward to the crowning example of manipulation, "The Last Supper", while visually acknowledging that it is badly damaged, the fact that Leonardo discussed the rendition of the heads of the apostles with church leaders is ignored in text and film.
Moreover, labeled sketches of the heads of the 12 as well as two sketches of a seating arrangement, where there is a John, but no Mary, are extant. But the most fantastic manipulation was to break the 3, 3, 1, 3, 3 balanced figural arrangement by computerized movement of the pivotal androgynous figure to the other side of Christ to suggest an accepted heterosexual relationship. Perhaps, the model for John was Salai, an androgynous youth in Leonardo's household, which makes his depiction understandable on several levels.
As art history goes, the film deserves an F, but as fictional entertainment a B.
Department of English
One of Alfred Hitchcock's notable decisions was to avoid filming popular works of fiction, for he believed that the audience would view such films with expectations that would inevitably limit his own creativity as a director. Clearly, Ron Howard does not share Hitchcock's aversion to adapting a bestselling novel – and so he has had to deal with a book that is sometimes rambling, awkwardly written and tedious, save for its central idea that has riled many religious readers and potential viewers: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child – and that descendents of that first family are among us.
Readers of the novel were propelled by the mysteries embedded in codes and by the presence of a dark force that sought to impede the hero's quest. Howard had to satisfy readers, avoid making the film too controversial, and use his enormous budget to attract a mass audience. Unfortunately, his efforts have failed. The film is too long by one hour (indeed Ian McKellen's appearance in the middle of the film added some life – but not for long)– the leads are dull, Tom Hanks seemingly walking through the film with an amiable half-smile, and Audrey Tatou looking as though she would rather be in any French café than in front of the camera.
Howard tries to divert us with his technical skill: swooping aerial shots that capture the lovely French countryside and imposing chateaux, flashbacks filmed in high-contrast blue and gray, and fine travelogue – like shots of London and Paris, not to mention close-ups of symbols and items that might have the answer to the central question that seems to be resolved in an intricate final visual revelation, anticlimactic at best. Grade: C-
Department of English
Admittedly, I view this film through a particular lens.
A centuries-old cover-up, a feminine threat to church authority, a scandalous pregnancy, messages encrypted in Renaissance artwork – all these elements of The Da Vinci Code seem quite familiar to me after studying the 700-year-old legend of Pope Joan, a woman who, as the story goes, disguised herself as a man and briefly ruled over the ninth-century church. But that story is told in another film, one that's currently in production.
What differentiates The Da Vinci Code most decidedly from other, frankly more entertaining, scavenger-hunt adventures such as National Treasure and the Indiana Jones movies – and, I suspect, what troubled the protestors I found outside my local theater – is a central scene in which Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), assisted by director Ron Howard's computer graphics and grainy, faux-documentary footage of the ancient world, delivers an impromptu history lecture that, at its most scandalous, questions the divinity of Jesus. Particularly when he's not lecturing, McKellen's playful Teabing, a modern-day Grail knight whose heart is less than pure, contributes many of the movie's most amusing moments and far outshines the colorless Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a Harvard "symbologist," who-no Indiana Jones here – seems carried along by events and the stronger personalities around him. At the same time, Teabing's character exposes the film's fundamental silliness.
The ultimate object of his quest, a 2,000-year-old "fact" verifiable through DNA testing, can, he insists, end "all the oppression of the poor and powerless, of those of different skin, of women." If only historical truths were so easily established, the sources of oppression so evident, and the instruments of oppression so frail.
Department of Religion
The AMC Loews Westbury Raceway Theatre has 277 seats, but only 106 people showed up Saturday (May 20) for the day's first showing of The Da Vinci Code, perhaps the highest-grossing universally panned movie of all time. The box office receipts are $224 million ($77 million in the United States) and counting, so apparently it does not matter that the critics at the Cannes Film Festival giggled throughout the two-and-one-half-hour film. SONY and Ron Howard still get to go to the bank. Just about everyone else gets taken to the cleaners.
For those stuck in a submarine for the past year, the story is based on Dan Brown's summer-weight book The Da Vinci Code, which wraps a murder mystery in some ludicrous history and silly conjecture about church history, the Vatican, Opus Dei, and the layout of Paris. The murder mystery part is actually somewhat interesting, and some folks in the theatre with me were pleased with the denouement, if only because they had not guessed it. Other than that, the movie was replete with several crashing car chases, a few bloody murders, and several close-ups of a hunky monk whipping himself in the style of The Passion of the Christ, with less lethal instruments but with equally pornographic results. (One wonders who did what to get a PG-13 rating for this film.)
The movie actually might be rather camp if the car chases and blood were eliminated, leaving it a sort of cinematographic fantasy about what happens when a Harvard professor gets invited by the French police to view a crime scene in the Louvre in the middle of the night, and there meets the victim's comely granddaughter who is conveniently a special agent with total recall, matched only by said professors ideditic memory, and they drive through Paris, then off into the French countryside, fly to London, and eventually end up in Scotland with nary a kiss between them.
Enjoy it if you can, for you surely will see it. At some point very soon no doubt you will be in a plane, hotel or video store with no other choice, and you will be hostage to what Hollywood now thinks is a "blockbuster."
I would not recommend the film for children or those who cannot (or will not) view blood and gore. Given the marketing machine, there may be still more versions of the story down the road. If they come out with a cartoon version they may call it The Duh Vinci Code. But that would be redundant.