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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The X files?

I’ve heard something about a new movie coming out. You might have heard of it too. I think it’s called The Da Vinci Code or something like that. Supposedly, it’s directed by Ron Howard and has people in it like Tom Hanks and Ian McKellen, so it sounds like it should be pretty good. I just wish I could find out more about it.

Okay, there I go again, being annoyingly facetious. Of course, no person not living in a cave in the wilderness has gone without being bombarded with information about The Da Vinci Code. Not only does it have star power going for it, both behind and in front of the camera, but it also has that godsend of all publicity departments, A Controversy. And no Controversy seems to whip up as much media attention as A Religious Controversy. Just ask Mel Gibson.

We shall see if whatever controversy The Da Vinci Code has spawned really is sufficient to help it at the box office. So far, the word of mouth from the critics has not been good, nor was its reception at Cannes last night. Did I mention that I am not at Cannes again this year?

The more I have listened to radio interviews with various figures in the Catholic and other churches, the more I have been put in mind of a controversy that was similar, yet different, 18 years ago. It involved a movie that I have referred to on these pages once or twice. The obvious thing that the two movies have in common is… But wait. Before I discuss that, courtesy requires me to point out that the element of the two movies’ commonality qualifies as a spoiler for each of the films. Now, I haven’t actually seen The Da Vinci Code (or even read the book) yet, but there is an apparently major plot point that has been discussed and mentioned endlessly in media coverage of the flick. Now, my impression is that this plot point would have been meant to be a major surprise in the course of the film’s narrative. So, on the chance that someone is reading this web page who has not seen or heard this coverage, including the plagiarism trial in which this plot point was mentioned frequently, or is not one of the millions who have read Dan Brown’s novel, let me hereby issue a formal warning that below are potential spoilers, not only for The Da Vinci Code but also for Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ.

There. Now where was I? Oh yeah. The obvious thing that the two movies have in common is the fact that they both portray Jesus as being married and having children. But otherwise, the two films are clearly very different. Interestingly, the reaction of various interested religious people to the two films has been very different, as well. I remember, in 1988, people angrily calling for a boycott of Scorsese’s movie. Their reaction was essentially to suppress it in any way they could. (They could not, of course.) Most of the coverage I have heard about the Da Vinci Code controversy has had religious people not trying to turn people away from the box office but to proclaim the movie’s release as an opportunity to teach people “the truth.” This strikes me as a much more reasonable approach than attempting suppression, which rarely works in a society like ours and often has the opposite effect of what is intended. My personal memories of 1988 are typically hazy, but I think it is safe to say that I probably would not have seen The Last Temptation of Christ were it not for all the controversy generated by people wanting to suppress it. And I was actually glad that I saw it.

The irony is that the new movie, which is getting a more reasonable reception from the religious powers that be, actually seems to be more heretical than the 1988 one that got the more virulent reaction. Now, let me enumerate my qualifications to determine the degrees of religious heresy a Hollywood movie might commit: um, none. This is just the opinion of a layman, who is not even—nor ever has been—the member of any church. The Da Vinci Code, as I understand it, actually presents Jesus’s marital and parental status as truth, at least within the confines of its fictional narrative. The Last Temptation of Christ does not portray Jesus as getting married or having children. Rather, it portrays him as having a hallucination (or something) about getting married and having children. The hallucination (or whatever it is) is conjured up by Satan, making it the titular last temptation that Jesus has to resist before submitting to crucifixion. If you believe that the New Testament is literal truth, there is nothing in the gospel to say this temptation ever happened. But there is nothing to say that it didn’t either. And it is not particularly inconsistent with the rest of the gospel. The plotline in The Da Vinci Code, on the other hand, clearly posits a major omission from the New Testament and one that challenges a major foundation of Christian belief.

The different reaction to the two movies may merely be a reflection of changing times. Religious Christians have become more sophisticated in how they deal with what they see as provocation from the secular arts and entertainment world. It is a sophistication that we didn’t see in, say, the little incident of the Danish cartoons. But the reaction may also have to do with the fact that, despite the fact they both touch on religion, the two movies really fall into different film subgenres. The Last Temptation of Christ actually makes Jesus a character in the film (played by Willem Dafoe). It is one of a long line of films to portray all or some part of the life of Jesus, running from Cecil B. De Mille’s The King of Kings to Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, with everything from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew to the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar along the way.

The Da Vinci Code, on the other hand, potentially fits into a subgenre I first identified as a trend at the 2001 Seattle International Film Festival: Let’s bash the Catholic Church. I elaborated on this trend in more depth last year, as I did on rundown on the various movies that have trashed, bashed and clashed with the Catholic Church since around the 1970s. Based on my limited knowledge of The Da Vinci Code, it may well be one more de facto entry in this Catholic bashing subgenre. Whether the filmmakers or the source novel’s original author deliberately set out to bash the Catholic Church, I can’t really say. After all, there is a long tradition of fictional literature in which powerful and/or influential institutions are portrayed as being evil or having evil rogue elements within them. If the menace isn’t coming from the Catholic church, then it is likely to be coming from the U.S. government in general, the CIA or NASA (Capricorn One) in particular, major corporations or the law firm for which the hero works (The Firm). The reason for this is that it usually makes for a good, entertaining paranoid/conspiracy yarn. For some reason, we often like it when movies tap into our deep-rooted fears about authority.

In essence, if my impression of The Da Vinci Code is correct, it is merely doing for theology what The X-Files did for exobiology.

-S.L., 18 May 2006

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