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Friday, May 26, 2006


Purgatory at a theater near you

The Da Vinci Code

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Ron Howard
Running time: 148 minutes
Language: English and French
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

In an age of e-mail and global cell phones, the Catholic Church may be the last great bastion of mysteries that can't be unraveled by simply clicking on Google. At least, that's what Dan Brown's global best-selling religious mystery thriller "The Da Vinci Code" would have us believe. According to the story there are some secrets of faith that just can't be reached through a computer screen but must be "decoded," "discovered" and "revealed" via days and nights of nonstop running through the streets and sleuthing exotic church architecture in France and England. Of course, such a story begged for a mega-blockbuster film treatment, the kind that a nonpolitical, nonreligious and extremely wealthy company like Sony Pictures could provide. And so now we have "The Da Vinci Code" the movie, directed by Ron Howard ("Apollo 13," "A Beautiful Mind") -- a choice that seems to have stemmed from an executive boardroom decision not to offend anyone. Not the Vatican, not the Opus Dei, not the one billion-strong Catholic faithful of this world, and not Dan Brown, who happens to be one of the producers and who participated in the soundtrack as well.

News photo
Tom Hanks and Audrey Tatou in "The Da Vinci Code"

Indeed, the skilled and reliable, if bland Ron Howard, faithfully re-enacts "Da Vinci" the book onto the screen -- you can see he has anticipated the "not as good as the book" criticism and is OK with that as long as he doesn't get any "the movie is grossly blasphemous" condemnations. But he anticipated those too, publicly stating that those who are likely to be upset by the film should stay away.

Howard preserves the book's scholarly, respectful tone and then some; it's abundantly clear how careful the director and Sony were about stepping on toes or clerical robe hems. Obviously, they didn't do a particularly good job in this respect. But imagine the total chaos that may have ensued had they brought in a filmmaker such as Lars Von Trier. What would he have done? Put up four walls in a barren studio and hung a sign that said "Louvre" and have some actor put on Mona Lisa makeup and sit behind a picture frame? At least that probably would have been fun. And fun is one thing this film sorely lacks, but with the contents of the book the way they are, it's difficult to really blame anyone.

It's all rigid from the outset: A very wooden Tom Hanks stars as Harvard history professor and symbology specialist Robert Langdon. He's in Paris giving lectures on how certain symbols can change meaning in different cultures and time-settings (duh!) when a police officer turns up and presents him with a murder-site photo: "I understand you were to see this victim tonight?" The corpse is that of Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle), curator of the Louvre, and his body was found splayed on the floor of his museum, stark naked and in the position of Leonardo Da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man." A pentacle had been carved in his chest, and there was a message with allusions to Da Vinci and what seemed like random numbers, written out in Sauniere's blood. Appalled, Langdon asks who might have committed such an atrocity; the officer informs him that Sauniere had died of a gunshot wound, but that this lavish mutilation and display had been performed by the victim himself, in the minutes before his death. Langdon is whisked off to the Louvre and meets the unsmiling, unbending Capt. Fache (Jean Reno), who is all ready to pronounce the murder a result of some demonic cult ritual, and Langdon as his prime suspect.

Helping Langdon escape from Fache and get entangled in the solving of Sauniere's message is police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tatou), who it turns out is Sauniere's estranged granddaughter ("we had a falling out many years ago"). Smart, beautiful and speaking English with that coquettish accent perfected by sophisticated Parisians, we keep waiting for Langdon to show some sparks toward her -- but no, he stays practically rigor mortis even as Sophie confides that the main reason for not speaking to her grandfather was because years ago, she had witnessed him in the act of (gasp!) fornication. Langdon makes no comment, no doubt to avoid getting slapped with a harassment suit. And so his and Sophie's team-up remains joyless until the end. The same cold stoniness applies to Fache, who claims that his pursuit of Langdon stems from his loyalty to Opus Dei, a disciplinarian Catholic lay sect that upholds work as the best way to praise God. Also dispatched from Opus Dei and hot on the heels of Sophie and Langdon is an albino monk named Silas (Paul Bettany), who talks into his cell phone in Latin and flagellates himself before the cross each time he prays. No one is having a good time here.

The only character to get even slightly randy is Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan), a wealthy scholar living in a majestic French chateau with a snide "manservant" called Remy (Jean-Yves Berteloot) to tend to his every need. Sir Leigh is a Da Vinci and Holy Grail fanatic; he lectures to Sophie and Langdon that the secret of the Grail can be sleuthed through Da Vinci's "Last Supper" painting, which in his interpretation is as much a celebration of feminine sexuality as it is a religious scene. "What?" says Sophie. "C'est incroyable!" Just as she had been disgusted by her grandfather having sex, she can't believe that Jesus' life could have involved anything sexual.

In the end, "The Da Vinci Code" (both the book and the movie) is more Freudian than religious, and what starts out as a philosophical inquiry sinks into maudlin sentimentality and familial psychoanalysis. You can't help feeling sorry for Sauniere, who went to all the trouble of stripping, slicing up his chest with a knife, and scrawling encoded messages in his own blood. What does Sophie say when she sees her grandfather like that? "He looks older than I remember." The curator should have just reached for a cell phone and called an ambulance.

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