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Inevitable Da Vinci movie an epic endurance test

by Glen Baity

I’ve never been the kind to say ‘“I’ll just wait for the movie,’” but in the case of The Da Vinci Code, I figured I’d just wait for the movie.

A lot of people read this book, and a lot of very smart, very literate friends have told me it’s a great little page-turner, but somehow I just couldn’t get excited about it. After spending what felt like 15 hours with the film adaptation, I wonder if I’ll ever be able muster enough enthusiasm to sit down with it.

For those of you who absolutely refuse to read the newspaper, or enter a bookstore, or talk to anyone who has done either of these things in the past several years, here’s Da Vinci in brief: its principal conceit is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were in fact man and wife, and that the Holy Grail is not the chalice used at the Last Supper, but Mary’s womb, which continued Christ’s bloodline.

The story itself involves Dr. Robert Langdon (played here blandly by Tom Hanks), an expert in the study of ancient symbols who is thrust into the midst of a centuries-old struggle between the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei, two secretive organizations within the Catholic church fighting against each other to locate the grail, one looking to expose the truth of Christ’s bloodline, the other looking to destroy the evidence.

It’s an interesting story, and if you read the book it’s entirely possible that you’ll get something wholly different out of the film than I did. But for anyone wondering what all the fuss is about, this adaptation makes a poor case for the Da Vinci mania that spawned a million History Channel specials and its own mini-section in Barnes and Noble.

A lot of the disappointment stems from the film’s unconventional ‘– and ultimately unsuccessful ‘– idea of what is exciting. I heard an interview with composer Hans Zimmer on NPR, in which he talked about his inspiration for the film’s score (which really is quite good). He based it on the idea that watching people think, watching them work out mysteries, is as engaging as any explosion. I thought that idea was workable enough ‘– how many thrillers contain lines like ‘“I have to get to a library, fast’”? ‘– but with the privilege of hindsight, I have to disagree.

Aside from the relatively few action sequences, Da Vinci amounts to a series of dialogue-heavy scenes in which the leads explain the long-winded mystery to one another. Appropriately enough, when we meet Langdon he’s giving a lecture in a crowded theater, and as we move with him through the story he continues to do just that, though his audience shrinks. It simply doesn’t translate from page to screen, and the film relies on its doing so.

I’m sure there are quite a few people who have heard the theory that during a canonically undocumented portion of Jesus’ life, he got married and raised a family (Kevin Smith’s Dogma dealt with similar subject matter six years ago, albeit with fart jokes), but unless the idea is completely new to you, The Da Vinci Code is not unlike listening to a lengthy dissertation for the second or third time.

And the film, clocking in at dangerously close to two and a half hours and containing no fewer than three separate endings-that-aren’t-endings, goes from garden-variety dull to hopeless in the last third, when it begins to rely on its characters for the first time. Unfortunately, it fails to nurture them through any sort of development, so it’s hard to start caring that late in the game.

The film isn’t without good qualities: director Ron Howard makes good use of light and shadow, the scenery is great, and the performance by Paul Bettany as the Opus Dei monk Silas rises above the rest of the cast. But none of that makes the film one to recommend.

From a relative outsider’s perspective, it’s kind of weird to witness the gargantuan proportion of the Da Vinci phenomenon. Maybe I’m being too flippant about the film’s questioning of Catholic dogma and its dalliance with Gnosticism, but I just don’t consider it very revolutionary, outside of the sheer scale of the public fascination with the whole thing. The real-life Opus Dei even called for the film to be labeled as fiction, which seems like an odd disclaimer. Allow me to state for the record that The Da Vinci Code bears no marks of a documentary, and unless you were confused that Tom Hanks is not a world-renowned ‘“symbologist’” ‘– in fact, he’s an actor! ‘– you should be able to navigate this one just fine, though it will take more than a little patience.

As codes go, I can think of a number more interesting than Da Vinci’s (binary and Morse spring immediately to mind), and as a thriller, the film might just be the polar opposite of ‘pulse-pounding.’ Go back to your book club, folks ‘– there’s nothing to see here.

Assure Glen Baity that the book really is good when you send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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