Sunday, June 04, 2006

The da Vinci code

Yet again, the actions of religious extremists are making headlines. Yet again, religious types are crying blasphemy. The latest mote in god’s eye is the big screen adaptation of Dan Brown’s bestselling pseudo-religious whodunit, The da Vinci code. Even the usually mild-mannered archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has joined in, using his easter sunday sermon as a platform to condemn the book and the film for encouraging people to treat christianity as “a series of conspiracies and cover-ups.” While the church of england is able only to utter a fairly meek squeak of indignation, elsewhere in the world protests have been far more vociferous. There have been prayer vigils outside cinemas, two councillors in Italy publicly burnt copies of the book and various spokesmen from the Vatican itself have condemned it, with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone describing it as “a sack full of lies.” Dan Brown is no doubt thankful that christians no longer burn heretics, and is no doubt equally grateful for the effect that all this free publicity will be having on his bank balance. The popularity of the book, which sold 60 million copies, always guaranteed that the film would make money, but, thanks to the faithful keeping the controversy going, The da Vinci code took a whopping £119 million at box offices on its opening weekend.

Frankly, finding out what the controversy is all about is just about the only reason to go and see the film. The da Vinci code clocks in at a bum-numbing 2 hours and 50 minutes long and is really rather tedious throughout. I found the experience akin to being stuck listening to someone who thinks that they are far more intelligent and interesting than they actually are, and is desperate for you to share their inflated opinion of themselves.

The plot itself is fairly standard fare. A man is murdered to protect a secret, and the protagonists get caught up trying to find out who murdered him and what secret he was protecting. In keeping with the worst examples of the genre, the murder victim manages to leave a series of elaborate riddles, while he is bleeding to death, for his granddaughter, played by Audrey Tautou and a expert in ‘symbology’ played by Tom Hanks, to solve. Credibility is tortured still further by a series of plot twists which are alternately so predictable you can see them a mile off, or so implausible that they qualify as deus ex machina.

Equally disappointing is the sheer amount of squandered talent. Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard have both made their fair share of stodgy films, but it takes a special knack to create such a lasklustre film featuring beautiful backdrops in Paris and London and starring the luminous Audrey Tautou, and the equally talented Jean Reno and Albert Molino. Even proficient performances by Paul Bettany as a sinister albino monk and an eccentric, camp, english knight played by eccentric, camp, english knight, Sir Ian McKellen, fail to rescue the film.

Of course, the popularity of the film and the book is arguably less to do with its artistic merit and more to do with the ‘controversial’ ideas contained within. I am sure I will not be spoiling the plot for those who have not yet discovered the joys of Dan Brown if I reveal that the central conceit is that Jesus married Mary Magdelene and had children, and that this secret has been protected by the Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar, who are opposed by the (real world) ultra-orthodox catholic sect Opus Dei who wish to wipe out all traces of this heresy. The clues are apparently all there in the works of Leonardo da Vinci (sigh).

Conspiracy theories are always popular, and the catholic church is a particularly fertile topic for conspiracy theorists: it is incredibly powerful, authoritarian and secretive, and through its reactionary dogma and the actions of some of its followers it has managed to upset an awful lot of people over the years. Iconoclasm and blasphemy are usually both fun and worthwhile, but The da Vinci code’s attacks on the catholic church seem rather clumsy. Not that it does not deserve it, but criticising catholicism for being a bit dodgy is rather like criticising George Bush for being a bit of an idiot: far too easy to be overly entertaining or subversive. The conspiracy theories that Dan Brown has reheated and served up as pop-fiction have been around for a very long time and frankly, are getting tired, not least because since the book of The da Vinci code was released in 2003 there has been an overabundance of related books and television and radio programmes that have jumped on the bandwagon. The appetite of a significant number of people for this fairly uninspiring conspiracy theory seems undiminished though.

The various church leaders that have got themselves in a tizzy over The da Vinci code seem to think that its popularity is indicative of the waning influence of christianity.
More than one commentator has quoted G K Chesterton’s adage that “once people stop believing in god, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything.” The sentiment expressed is an arrogant underestimation of the credulity of non-believers, with the subtext that we would all be better off believing what we are told to believe. However, it is true that while, certainly in western europe, the influence of organised religion is on the decline, the reasons behind religious belief remain and simply find new expressions. We are still products of an irrational society, and one which is confusing and where we as individuals have very little power. This is fertile breeding ground for belief structures that reassure us by offering a neatly packaged version of reality and meaning to subscribe to. Conventional religions such as christianity have not been able to evolve quick enough to continue to meet our needs as society has evolved, and so people turn to alternatives, whether it is a pick and mix approach to spirituality, incorporating aliens, or ghosts or crystals, or belief in conspiracy theories, or any number of other options. None of us is entirely immune to this impulse towards irrational beliefs, because we are all products of this irrational society. The left for example is certainly not immune to influences of the tinfoil hat brigade. There are those who consider themselves part of the left who believe that 9-11 was an inside job, or that the jewish community controls the world. The cpgb has itself routinely been the target of various rumours, some of which have the potential to be deeply harmful if anyone believes the deluded individuals that promote them. This is not to say that all fans of Dan Brown believe the conspiracy theories contained in his books, because undoubtedly most do not, but the attraction of such beliefs does perhaps suggest a part of the appeal of The da Vinci code.

There is then a certain irony that the key participants in the controversy over The da Vinci code are both promoting irrational beliefs while criticising their ideological rivals for their irrationality. Personally the person I feel sorriest for, more so even than myself for having to sit through the film, is Leonardo da Vinci. All reliable evidence would suggest that da Vinci was a man who, far from being part of a superstitious and clandestine sect, was an exemplar of the rigorous and enquiring approach that is the source of rationality.

An edited version of this review can also be read in the communist party of great britain's paper, the weekly worker, which is available online at:

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