The Da Vinci Code
Produced by Columbia Pictures
Directed by Ron Howard
Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman from the novel by Dan Brown
Distributed by Sony Pictures
At one point in The Da Vinci Code, the marvelously funny movie based on Dan Brown’s as nearly hilarious novel, Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), renowned cryptologist for the Direction Centrale Police Judiciaire in Paris, and Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), Harvard’s world-famous professor of religious symbology, stumble onto what just may be “the greatest cover-up in human history.” It seems that a secret society known as the Priory of Sion, a.k.a. the Keepers, has been safeguarding this “truth” since A.D. 1099. If divulged, it would “devastate the foundations of Christianity.” So what in bejesus is this truth? Simply this: Christ and Mary Magdalene were lovers. After his crucifixion, she absconded to France—where else?—and gave birth to their daughter, Sarah. Furthermore, this began a bloodline that reaches down to the present day. Upon learning this, Sophie looks at Robert, her eyes wide with cryptological astonishment, and asks, “Is it possible?” Robert pauses for a solemnly judicious moment before replying, “It’s not impossible.” In the science of symbology, possibility is all.
This being a gnostic narrative, Robert’s answer has a subtext. The initiate can easily divine its hidden meaning. I make no pretense to being an initiate myself, but I think I can guess the message. Before doing so, however, a warning: In what follows, I have felt compelled to reveal several hidden “truths.” If you have any intention of seeing “DVC,” as it is familiarly known, you might want to stop reading here. You can always return to my reflections once you have beheld their source.
Let’s come back, then, to Sophie’s question. Robert’s careful answer reveals what is none other than the long-standing narrative method of Akiva Goldsman, the film’s scriptwriter, and Ron Howard, its director. Both are past masters of the “not-impossible” school of filmmaking. You’ll find this approach vividly on display in their earlier collaborations, A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man. In both films, plain facts bow before the not-impossible.
A Beautiful Mind portrayed Princeton’s mad mathematical genius John Nash as a man trapped in a paranoid delusion of a right-wing hysteria, imagining himself an FBI commie code breaker. But a little fact checking—by which I mean reading Sylvia Nascar’s biography of the same title on which the film is based—proves that, far from hunting reds, he joined them. Nash took a leftist powder and defected to East Germany. At first, the worker’s paradise greeted him enthusiastically, but, two weeks later, the communists unceremoniously kicked him out. Apparently, serious-minded communists were not enchanted by his antics. So why did Goldsman and Howard falsify the record? Apparently, the political drift of the facts was not to their liking. If Nash was to be the film’s hero of psychic regeneration, it wouldn’t do to show him recovering from a case of advanced communist admiration. How much more satisfying to have him recover from right-wing delusions! It’s not impossible, is it?
In Cinderella Man, the Goldsman-Howard team smeared heavyweight boxer Max Baer, portraying him as a sadistic thug who reveled in his reputation as a killer in the ring. This characterization also flouts the truth. One man, Frankie Campbell, did die after meeting Baer in the ring. The referee allowed the fight to continue well after Campbell was incapable of defending himself properly. Far from exulting over Campbell’s death, Baer was so devastated, he quit boxing for a time. Returning to the ring, he was so afraid of hurting his opponents that, to the exasperation of his manager and his fans, he routinely let up on them when they gave signs of being in trouble, a foolhardy practice, especially in the heavyweight division. None of this troubled the not-impossible boys. They needed a villain to make their hero, James Braddock, look noble by comparison, so they slandered Baer, making him the sneering, murderous thug we see in their film.
Given their track record, we can see why Goldsman and Howard jumped on Brown’s not-impossible novel. It opens a whole new vista for them: “symbology.” What is symbology? You remember the English professor you had in college, the one who argued that the fishing lines Santiago used to pull in the giant swordfish in The Old Man and the Sea were to be understood symbolically. They stood for the pencils Papa Hemingway was using to land the great American novel. The swordfish, gnostically understood, is the text, and the sharks who tear away at the big fish before Santiago can get it ashore are the critics. That’s symbology. Anything can be made to mean anything else. How could Goldsman and Howard resist?
In the film’s opening sequence, we see symbology in action. Langdon is giving a lecture in which he argues that “symbols are a language that can help us understand our past.” After breezing through a slide show of famous symbols—including, oddly enough, the crucifix and swastika back to back—he turns to his audience and asks rhetorically, “How do we sift truth from belief?” This is Brown’s “open sesame.” Only he sifted apocrypha from truth. Then, making the “not-impossible” his watchword, he concocted a whopper of a best-seller.
Unfortunately, the not-impossible narrative often wanders into the demonstrably fake. A cottage industry of scholarly debunking has grown up around Brown’s novel. Theologians of every Christian and Hebraic persuasion have documented its absurdities. Many of these treatises are compelling. Darrell Bock’s Breaking the Da Vinci Code is a good place to start. For me, however, it’s the bloodline claim that did it. The narrative expects us to suspend our disbelief to accommodate the notion that, across 2,000 years, Christ’s progeny would come down to just one young woman who, by the way, doesn’t look Semitic at all. (Of course, over a 2,000-year lineage, some exogamous wandering is to be expected.) And, revelation of revelations, the descendant turns out to be none other than our Sophie, as incarnated by the elfin Tautou. But wait a minute. Wouldn’t we expect more descendants from this bloodline? My rocket-scientist son-in-law, John Williams, did some calculations. On the wildly conservative assumption that each of Christ’s supposed descendants averaged a fertility-challenged 1.3 children in each of the 57 generations since, say, A.D. 33, the extended Holy Family would number nearly a million alive today. And how would they be detectable? Brown and the film give us some mumbo-jumbo about the possibility of getting DNA from the remains of Mary Magdalene. This leads Sophie and Robert on a wild search for her tomb that had, as everyone knows, been bounced all over Europe by the Knights Templar, who were able to use it to blackmail the Church hierarchy in the Middle Ages before some pope had them all slaughtered. It seems that the Roman Church was sensitive on the matter. They were not about to allow the Templars to blow a good thing by informing Christendom of their Savior’s marriage. Nor would they countenance any recognition of Christ’s issue. So, since at least the second century, the Church has conspired to keep the secret from the faithful. And, more than the fact of the marriage, they needed to prevent news of how they suppressed the “sacred feminine” in Catholic culture. You see, Mary was a proto-feminist who, as Christ’s consort, was the Church’s true founder, something that distressed the chauvinist male Apostles and their institutional descendants to no end. (Odd, then, their steadfast veneration of the other Mary.) To cover all this up, they deployed a search-and-destroy mission to eliminate Jesus’ progeny—a mission that continues to our time. This is where their militant wing, Opus Dei, comes in. I bet you didn’t know that Opus Dei is really the Church’s CIA, a supersecret agency with headquarters cleverly hidden on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Chillingly, the members are all verifiably pre-Vatican II conservative Catholics. They claim to be doing Christ’s work in the world when, in fact, they are black baggers enforcing Church doctrine at the end of a gun. You know they are really sinister because, when making cell-phone calls, they speak in Latin. Sends a shiver down your spine, doesn’t it?
Fortunately, the Priory of Sion has been defending the issue of Jesus and Mary for as long as they have been hunted by the Church. One of their past members was Leonardo Da Vinci, who cleverly encoded the secret in 1498 when he painted one of his more obscure canvases, The Last Supper. But that’s not all. Step by stealthy step, Sophie and Langdon discover a raft of other irresistibly chic symbols, codes, and anagrams that lead them closer and closer to the “truth.” Still, they need Sir Ian McKellan to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. McKellan is Sir Leigh Teabing (or is that Teabag?), and he’s an even bigger know-it-all windbag than Langdon. It is he who fruitily informs them that the Holy Grail that everyone’s been searching for over the last 2,000 years is actually not a chalice but the womb of Mary Magdalene. Got that? Were this let out, the Church would have to acknowledge the reality of the sacred feminine. In consequence, the world would turn away from war to peace and take up communal quilting. You can see how crucial it is to hide this truth.
If the bloodline improbability does not clinch matters, perhaps the Priory of Sion will. In his prefatory notes to the novel, Brown states as fact that the Priory goes back to A.D. 1099 and includes among its leading members not only Leonardo but also Sandro Botticelli, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and (my favorite) Jean Cocteau. This is odd, since there is documented evidence that the Priory was founded in 1956 by one Pierre Plantard and some friends. Originally, it was supposed to be a gag. Plantard got the name from Col du Mont Sion in France, not Mount Sion in Jerusalem. Later, he decided to fake records for the Priory to make it look as if it started in the Middle Ages, so that he could claim he descended from the Merovingian dynasty. He wanted to confer a little royal cachet on an out-of-the way hotel he owned near the town of St. Julien. M. Plantard, as one would imagine, has done time.
Does anything more need to be said?
Just this: At the end of the film, when it becomes clear that they will not be able to prove her sacred lineage, Robert explains to the disconsolate Sophie, “The only thing that really matters is what you believe.” Sounds excessively American to me. But the kicker is still to come: Robert goes on to speculate that “maybe the human is the divine.” Well, that knocks everything into a cocked miter, doesn’t it?
And you wondered at the phenomenal take the novel and film have been enjoying. It has always paid to flatter the masses.