Da Vinci Hoo-Ha Opens Door on Opus Dei

Good-sport superstar Tom Hanks has done his best to detoxify the religious controversies swirling around The Da Vinci Code by appearing on Saturday Night Live to promote the film. When a man in the audience with a Christ-like beard stood up to proclaim, “I forgive you, Tom,” Mr. Hanks rose to the bait by asking if he was being forgiven for The Da Vinci Code. “No, Tom,” the man replied, “I forgive you for The Terminal.” And so be it.

As it happens, Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code, from a screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown, turns out to be more interesting for all the learned buzz it has inspired in advance than for its very limited impact as a moviegoing experience. Indeed, by the time I got to bear witness to its first opening-day screening at my local multiplex, I had been so completely drenched by all the print and media drizzle on the subject that I found it difficult to concentrate on the seemingly interminable conversations about what really happened back when and by whom and why.

Particularly fascinating was all the stuff about Opus Dei, a religious order I had always identified with the rise of fascism and Franco-ruled Spain. According to Peter J. Boyer’s valuable article “Hollywood Heresy,” on “Marketing The Da Vinci Code to Christians,” in the May 22 issue of The New Yorker: “Opus Dei is a unique community, begun in 1928 by a Spanish priest named Josemaría Escrivá, who envisioned a world made holier by a cadre of deeply pious laypeople committed to expressing their spiritual devotion through their everyday work in the secular world.”

What I didn’t know until Mr. Boyer informed me was that Opus Dei has about 87,000 members worldwide, with about 3,000 in the United States. Mr. Boyer informs us further: “There is nothing outwardly ominous about the building at Lexington Avenue and East Thirty-fourth Street, a handsome seventeen-story red-brick-and-limestone tower, that is the American headquarters of the Prelature of Opus Dei.” I must have passed this building many times without recognizing its purpose or provenance.

But then I am not and never have been a Roman Catholic: The Greek Orthodox faith imparted to me by my parents in my childhood was somewhat more permissive on many churchly issues than seemed the case with my Roman Catholic friends and neighbors. The rite of confession, in particular, struck me even in childhood as an outrageous invasion of privacy. In any event, I have reached an age when questions of religious faith, especially as they relate to the afterlife, are placed on my back burner while I contemplate this life’s cinema.

Anyway, what started me on the detour of Opus Dei was a scene in the movie, vividly reproduced from an account in Mr. Brown’s novel, of an albino assassin named Silas (Paul Bettany) stripping himself naked so that he can mortify his flesh with a “cilice,” a barbed belt worn around the thigh, and a “discipline,” a knotted rope utilized for self-flagellation. This combination of church-sanctioned S&M devices enables Silas, with repeated whippings, to make his blood flow with the love of God and Jesus so he can be motivated to vandalize a church and murder a nun in search of damning evidence that would prove the Christian faith to be based on a lie. According to Mr. Brown, Jesus was really a mortal man with a wife, Mary Magdalene, who has been slandered as a prostitute by the church ever since as a part of a nefarious conspiracy. Jesus and Mary had a child, establishing a line of descendants who have survived to this day despite all the bloody attempts at a cover-up by the church.

This is the plot payoff to the murder mystery concocted by Mr. Brown to illustrate and dramatize his thesis. Mr. Howard and Mr. Goldsman have somewhat softened Mr. Brown’s rock-hard subversion of Christian doctrine by making his male protagonist, Robert Langdon, somewhat of a covert believer. But Mr. Brown has gone much further in what the church fathers would consider sacrilege than did Nikos Kazantzakis with The Last Temptation of Christ, which Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader adapted into a commercially unsuccessful Biblical film in 1988. Their mistake, perhaps, was in rendering the dialogue in English.

By contrast, Mel Gibson made a fortune in 2004 with the more “authentic” Aramaic (with English subtitles) in The Passion of the Christ, characterized by an ideologically conservative, vestigially anti-Semitic and excessively sadomasochistic rendering of the Crucifixion. Mr. Gibson’s confounding of the film industry, which virtually excommunicated him from its inner councils, paved the way for Sony’s coup in bringing The Da Vinci Code to the screen with a worldwide publicity campaign based largely on the writings of an army of would-be debunkers of Mr. Brown’s audacious speculations—which, in themselves, are hardly all that original.

In this context, I cannot find much fault with the choices made by Mr. Howard and Mr. Goldsman in adapting the novel to the screen. The casting of the various roles ranges from the extraordinary (Ian McKellen as Sir Leigh Teabing, the wealthy, mod-swinging British scholar who gives the film a big lift when he first appears) to the exemplary (Mr. Hanks as Langdon, the best-selling American symbologist, and Audrey Tautou as Sophie Neveu, police cryptologist and eventually much more). The more-than-adequate cast members include Mr. Bettany as Silas, Jean Reno as police inspector Bezu Fache, Alfred Molina as Bishop Aringarosa (one of the bad guys from Opus Dei), Jurgen Prochnow as the Swiss banker Vernet and Jean-Yves Berteloot as Remy, Teabing’s deceptively patient manservant.

The back-stories of the co-protagonists are deftly compressed in tantalizingly brief flashbacks, and even Silas is granted an abused-child alibi for his monstrous misdeeds. As for the complaints of albino groups that they have been vilified as villains in 67 previous movies without one movie hero to their credit, I must confess that I have never thought about this issue before. But I am not surprised that Hollywood—ever the handmaiden to the young and the beautiful at the expense of the rest of us—wouldn’t hesitate to besmirch any epidermal abnormality or deformity with the broad brushstrokes of villainy. Exceptions are made for handicapped individuals like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Elephant Man, but excessive pity is almost as much of an imposition as the attribution of villainy. Would Shakespeare’s Richard III be happier with our sympathy or our fear?

The adapters have also been wise in eliminating what amounts in the book to a final romantic clinch between the hitherto all-business Robert and Sophie, with a future carefree convention date in Florence cancelled as well. The backgrounds of great paintings and the interior architecture of great buildings figure entertainingly as clues to the mystery, and they also somewhat redeem a mise-en-scène that is almost completely devoid of sunny outdoor scenic grandeur and pulsatingly metropolitan ambience. The few visual diversions—the crowd scenes swirling around the Emperor Constantine and the Knights Templar—are amusingly childlike in their literalness. The token car chases are, in a word, pathetic.

Finally, I am sympathetic to the progressive idea of a more feminized form of Christianity, one that would downgrade celibacy from an ideal to an option and altogether eliminate the sadomasochistic mortification of the flesh, even if Mother Teresa of Calcutta did it in between feeding the poor and ministering to their other needs. I’m not sorry that I saw the film, even if it is part of my job to check on what all the hubbub is about. I won’t go so far as to recommend it, and I can’t imagine ever wanting to see it again. Still, I wish it well at the box office. There are too many worse things looming on the horizon.

A Good Yarn

Chen Kaige’s The Promise, from a screenplay by Mr. Chen and Zhang Tan, based on a story by Mr. Chen, has been criticized by some reviewers for its low-tech special effects. Curiously, I found this technical transparency part of the film’s enormous charm, beginning with its bewitching opening scene of a little Chinese girl in rags scavenging for food among the corpses on a battlefield, some of them hanging from trees. Just as she is trying on a stolen boot from one of the hanging corpses, she is caught and tied up by an older boy, the son of the commander of the troops she is looting. When she asks with a coquettish smile to touch his warrior’s helmet, he unties her and offers a deal: If she agrees to be his slave, he will let her keep her findings, including some bread for her mother. When he approaches her so she can touch his helmet, she bops him on the head with it and runs off instead, thus breaking her promise.

Later on her rounds, the little girl loses the bread in a deep pool from which emerges the goddess Manshen (Chen Hong), who tells her that her mother no longer needs the bread because she has died. The goddess then offers the little girl a fantastic proposition: She will lead a luxurious life as a renowned beauty, adored and supported by the most powerful men in the land, in return for a small sacrifice: Every man she loves she will lose. The little girl accepts the deal without hesitation.

Twenty years later, the great general Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) is leading his army into battle in a magnificent suit of red armor. First he sends a band of slaves into the valley, to absorb the first attack of the enemy and lure them into a horseshoe-shaped canyon from which there is no escape, but the equally crafty enemy commander sends a herd of rampaging bulls into the valley. The only survivors among the slaves is Kunlun (Jang Dong-Gun), who runs faster than the wind.

To make a long and convoluted fairy tale short, Gaungming and Kunlun will soon find themselves competing for the ill-fated love of Princess Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung) with a bloody-minded warlord named Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse). By a strange coincidence, Quingcheng and Wuhuan have met before, in childhood, and he has been chasing her ever since. There are many twists and turns in the narrative, and since the aforementioned charm of the film arises from not knowing too much of the convoluted story in advance, suffice it to say that there is a happy ending, deviously foretold by the goddess Manshen: “Once you have accepted your destiny, nothing can alter it unless time flows backward, snow falls in the spring, and the dead come back to life.” The heck with special effects; the emotional pay-off of a good yarn always prevails.