- Director: Ron Howard
- Leads: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, and Paul Bettany
- Producer: John Calley
- Budget: $125 million
- Language: English
- Length: 149 min.
Much uproar has been made in the media about the religious controversy surrounding director Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code. The massive publicity campaign alone, leading up to the film’s release in late May, was enough to draw government bans on its screening in several countries, including Pakistan, Egypt, and at least six Indian states. In China, the government pulled the movie 3 weeks after its release amid allegations of political motives.
Still, the movie has turned into one of the biggest Hollywood box-office hits just 1 month after its release. With nearly US$700 million in world-wide ticket revenues, it passed Tom Hanks’ last big hit, Forrest Gump (1994, with ticket revenues of US$680 million) and continued the film’s charge into the top 20 highest-earning movies of all time. Although the top spot, belonging to Titanic (1997, with ticket revenues of US$1.8 billion), might prove hard to reach, The Da Vinci Code will likely easily see its way to the top-10 list by the time it hits video rental stores.
Its popularity is certainly not because of the controversy; such a factor can only help sustain the revenues for a few weekends. And despite mixed reviews in Cannes and other notable film festivals, this movie is finding success on the consumer level because it speaks to the individual, rather than forces its challenging message across.
Movies usually entertain, help us escape into other worlds, convey alternative perspectives of a debate, or even foster a social impact by raising new issues and exposing political facts. It is seldom that a movie makes you think not about others, but about yourself, causing you to reexamine your own premises and values.
The Da Vinci Code does that
Based on Dan Brown’s best-seller novel of the same name, the movie effortlessly draws you into the countless twists of its complex plot.
With the opening, we watch the curator of the Louvre, Jacques Sauniere (Jean Pierre Marielle) being murdered by an albino monk, Silas (Paul Bettany), after being asked, “Isn’t it a secret you would die for?” while Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a Harvard professor is delivering a lecture on religious symbology in Paris.
The French Police approach Langdon to help trace the murderer because Sauniere’s body was found in a peculiar position with symbols written on it and a message in code. Not realizing that he is the prime suspect of Captain Fache (Jean Reno), Langdon is busy trying to figure out the code when French police cryptologist Sophie Neveau (Audrey Tautou), who is also Sauniere’s granddaughter, manages to warn him. Together, they and the French Police break a series of codes left for them by the dead curator, while Silas stays hot on their trail.
Needing a safe house to rest in and to crack the code, Langdon contacts an old colleague, Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), a British historian and Gnostic Gospel expert who lives in Chateau Villette with his butler, Remy Jean (Jean-Yves Berteloot). There Langdon and Neveau discover that three others apart from Sauniere had been murdered, and that there is yet another code that leads them to London.
Why did Silas kill Sauniere? Who is the mysterious Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina) on whose command Silas kills several people? Who is The Teacher that Aringarosa so implicitly trusts and follows? Why is it that every time Langdon and Neveau manage to evade the authorities and Silas, they are discovered within a few minutes of their arrival anywhere?
Is there a leak? What is the secret that Sauniere died for? Will Langdon and Neveau live to find out, or will they be killed before they discover the secret? And, if they discover it, will they have the courage to reveal it?
Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay is the highlight of the movie, and some of the lines are extremely powerful and relevant in today’s world. The screenplay deals with a variety of issues although the main theme is gender discrimination in religion.
What I liked most about this movie is that it makes you introspect and ask questions, irrespective of your faith or religion. To quote a line from the movie: “He who keeps the keys to Heaven rules the world. Women then are a huge threat to religion.” Notice it mentions religion and not Christianity in particular.
This movie is not about Jesus and his possible descendants, but rather it raises a more fundamental point relevant to all of humanity: Does divinity discriminate between genders or is it those who claim to be the gatekeepers of the divine on earth who discriminate? Where are the women apostles, messengers, and enlightened ones in various religious discourses — Hajar, Mary Magdalene, Avvaiyar, Andal, Meera, Khadijah, `Ai’shah, and so on? Why have they always been sidelined and sometimes even forgotten?
It is interesting that the screen writer, Akiva Goldsman, chose to focus on women’s rights in Christianity and other religions as a clash between those seeking equality and those wanting to continue male domination in the world.
There are other issues raised through dialogue in The Da Vinci Code. For example, the following conversation takes place between Neveau and Silas in one particularly intense, but revealing, scene.
- Neveau: Why did you kill Jacques Sauniere?
- Silas: I am a messenger of God.
- Neveau: Why did you kill my grandfather?
- Silas: I am a messenger … (Neveau slaps him)
- Neveau: Do you believe in God? Your God doesn’t forgive murderers. He burns them in Hell.
This raises the issue of religious fundamentalism and terrorism committed in the name of God worldwide. By using the phrase “Your God,” the question makes this inclusive of all religions, and especially refers to the often self-proclaimed leaders who make up the religious right in the world. It also brings out the power of the men who operate such religious institutions and the extent they would go to retain their power.
When Bishop Aringarosa is asked what he would do if he were to find Jesus’s descendants, his chilling reply is perhaps enough of an indication. “Christ sacrificed his life for the betterment of humanity. So too may be the fate of his seed,” he says and promptly crosses himself.
The other issue the movie raises through the character of Silas is the question of who is a true believer. Is a believer a person who faithfully performs the rituals and rites as dictated by religion and who doesn’t think twice about murdering innocent people? Or is a believer a person who isn’t necessarily consistent with ritual performance, but who is humanitarian in approach and is not prejudiced by religion?
But aside from the plot, The Da Vinci Code is technically fantastic, with the composition of frames deserving special praise. When Silas murders Sauniere in the Louvre, we are symbolically shown that nothing goes unwitnessed; the figures in the paintings are watching. Also, we are symbolically shown the information being passed from Sauniere to Langdon.
The opening sequence of images shows the connection between the two men and the new guardian of the secret. As Sauniere’s bloody hand reaches upward, we are shown Langdon’s hands reaching downward as if to receive it. And as the dying Sauniere tries to speak, Langdon picks up the microphone, thanks his audience and warns they are about to embark on a quest for the truth by understanding the past — a clever and extremely well-arranged sequence.
The performances of Paul Bettany and Tom Hanks deserve to be applauded. Paul Bettany’s role stands out as he convincingly portrays the monk who has been brainwashed into believing he is an angel out to do God’s work. When I heard that Tom Hanks was to play Robert Langdon, I had my doubts, but Hanks manages to slip into his character easily and convincingly. With his subtle performance, he effectively manages not only to play his role, but to accentuate the performances of the rest of the movie’s cast.
The music by Hans Zimmer is haunting and extremely effective in heightening the tension of selected scenes. In addition, the cinematography of Salvatore Totino and the visual effects of Angus Bickerton are wonderful, especially the flashback sequences featuring a unique color composition that leaves the audience with a surreal and rather pleasurable aesthetic experience.
Criticisms and Overall Impressions
While the movie deserves exceptional acclaim overall, there were some shots and lines that I found irritating. One such scene has the line “Only the worthy can unlock the keystone,” and then only men unlock it, not Neveau who had been trained as a cryptologist.
Both Audrey Tautou and Ian McKellen are disappointing, relative to the expectations attached to their originally significant roles. Except for their expressive eyes, they both fail to convince. Though the story requires it, there is too much French and Latin dialogue for my liking. The characters could have spoken English with a French accent, as was done in some scenes. For those who haven’t read the book and chose to only watch the movie instead, the lack of consistency in language use might cause some confusion.
In all, I would categorize The Da Vinci Code not as a mystery or a thriller but rather as the first feminist movie on religion from Hollywood.
For those who choose to debate the movie’s religious messages, perhaps a worthy question is what if Jesus had married and had fathered children? Does it diminish his message or his acts on earth, or does it affect the alleged gatekeepers who choose to propagate a particular creed of Christianity? For all others, perhaps an examination of the phenomenon of phasing out the leadership role of women over centuries in their own religions might prove constructive.
The Da Vinci Code is a must-see, not because of the controversy and the bans, but rather because, unlike other movies that serve our needs of escapism, it entertains and makes us introspect and question religious dogma — irrespective of religion — that dictates certain aspects of our lives.
Simply put, this movie makes you think, and that is a rare feat indeed.
By: Deepa Kandaswamy