Movie Review
The DaVinci Code
by Bill Gallagher

DISCLAIMER: The review you are about to read deals with a movie that is a work of fiction based on a book that is a work of fiction.

Granted, we’re talking anecdotal evidence here, but I’m thinking the people most likely to have spent the money by now to see “The Da Vinci Code” are the “churched.” You know—the people in the pews on Sunday. They’re the ones putting their butts in the seats to see how Ron Howard had taken Dan Brown’s bestseller and turned it into a movie.

Hollywood, with a huge assist from Mel Gibson, has discovered that what works on Sunday can sell tickets at the local multiplex. Namely: religion. The $612 million worldwide that Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” made for its backers (first and foremost Gibson himself) didn’t talk to the studios—it screamed. Then “The Chronicles of Narnia” with $741 million worldwide beat “King Kong” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” at the box office last year, and you could almost hear the cell phone calls: “Have you got anything in the works with a religious theme?”

Enter Mike Rich. Oregon’s all-time number one screenwriter (“Finding Forrester,” “The Rookie,” “Miracle”) has written the script for “Nativity,” the story of Mary, the mother of God. It is filming in Morocco even as you read this. Oscar-nominated actress Keisha Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider”) in the role of Mary is described as “a simple but virtuous adolescent who is chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus Christ.”

When I called Rich to get his take on “The Da Vinci Code,” he was packing his bags for a trip to Italy to meet with a couple dozen religious leaders to reassure them that his “Nativity” is true to the various Gospel accounts of the life of Mary.

“It’s not very good” was his four-word critique of “The Da Vinci Code.” (I disagree, but more on that shortly.) Nevertheless, he hopes it does well because that will bode well for “Nativity,” which has been fast-tracked for a December release. If a thriller like “The Da Vinci Code,” with such an overtly religious context, sells lots of tickets, that should indicate a healthy interest in his movie.

And Rich gives credit where credit is due: to Mel Gibson. “Two years ago, before ‘The Passion,’ no way would ‘Nativity’ have been made.”

The studio banking on “Nativity” has not only arranged Rich’s meetings in Italy with influential religious leaders and opinion-shapers, it has hired Jonathon Bock, the same man hired by the studio that released “The Da Vinci Code” to work with the “churched.” He’s described in The New Yorker as “one of the new breed of faith-oriented consultants now thriving in Hollywood.” “He pointed out to me that 42 percent of the American public will go to church this Sunday. Forty-two percent! To ignore them as people who would go see a movie would be like ignoring men,” Rich said.

Unlike “The Da Vinci Code,” there will be no protestors on the sidewalk outside the theater when “Nativity” opens. And no self-righteous, self-appointed defenders of the one true way will demand that a disclaimer precede this cinematic treatment. The script has been circulating among various faith groups, and the early response is that it is “respectful” of the Gospels. It’s also been noted that Mary’s engagement to Joseph, how he handled the news of her pregnancy, how King Herod handled the same news, and the young mother’s escape to Egypt make for—pardon the expression—a hell of a story.

Having his script vetted before filming is even completed has been just a little weird for Rich though. “Major League Baseball didn’t get an early look at ‘The Rookie,’ and the U.S. Olympic Committee sure didn’t see ‘Miracle.’”

Now, about “The Da Vinci Code.” Pardon my irreverence, but it is just a movie based on a novel, right?

Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbologist/sleuth played by Tom Hanks poses the question, “Would the knowledge that there’s a living descendant of Jesus Christ destroy or renew faith?” All I could think was, “Well, if that living descendant is Sophie Neveu—a French babe with big brown eyes and great legs—then hello faith renewal.”

Seriously though, “The Da Vinci Code” is hard to take seriously enough to mount a protest on the sidewalk in front of the theaters where it’s been playing. It doesn’t make any declarations that would cause anyone with sturdy faith to switch sides and join the As (atheists or agnostics). People abandon the Judeo-Christian belief system because they’ve lost the will or ability to fathom how God could let bad things happen. Not because of what they read in a book or see on the big screen.

“The Da Vinci Code” works in many of the same ways the novel worked: as a suspenseful story built on the intriguing and not entirely new idea that the early Church fathers killed the story that Jesus Christ fathered a daughter by Mary Magdalene (“They even know the name of the child?” asks a wide-eyed Sophie played by Audrey Tautou). Dan Brown’s genius was in weaving this premise into an irresistible page-turner. It’s a great read, the kind of novel that has you thinking you’re learning something. Ron Howard was smart enough to stick to Brown’s script.

What he adds to the story is a nice cinematic treatment of historical flashbacks that fill in the blank spaces for those few souls who still haven’t read the book. I talked to one such person—a Jesuit-educated, intelligent Catholic in his mid-twenties—right after he’d seen it, and he was intrigued but not convinced by the alternative version of the legacy of Jesus Christ. He said the movie made him want to read the book. All the explaining can get to be a bit much. At times, it felt like reading a book called “Alternative Christianity For Dummies.” And the first 40 or so minutes of the movie are muddled. Things don’t get moving until Langdon and Neveu show up at the chateau of Sir Leigh Teabing. He’s the expert on the Magdalene scenario, and Ian McKellen (“Lord of the Rings,” “X-Men,” Gods and Monsters”) plays him with a nice twisted touch. It should have given the protestors pause that he eventually turns out to be the one who would reveal “the greatest cover-up in human history!” When a man who betrays his friends is the messenger, the message is discredited. That’s Screenwriting 101.

A final thought on the controversy surrounding the movie. I heard one of those wags, whose mission it is to protect us feeble-minded Christians from “The Da Vinci Code,” whining on a Portland talk radio show about how Hollywood would never dare to make a movie that questioned the truth of Muhammad’s story. All I could think was, Hollywood would indeed green light such a project if it promised sizeable profits. That’s the Hollywood code.

Bill Gallagher is the news director of AM 860 KPAM, the talk station where he occasionally reviews movies on the Bob Miller Show. His movie column appears monthly in BrainstormNW.

BrainstormNW - June 2006

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