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DA VINCI CODE(director: Ron Howard; screenwriters: Akiva Goldsman/based on the novel by Dan Brown; cinematographer: Salvatore Totino; editor: Dan Hanley/Mike Hill; music: Hans Zimmer; cast: Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon), Audrey Tautou (Sophie Neveu), Ian McKellen (Sir Leigh Teabing), Jean-Yves Berteloot (Remy), Jürgen Prochnow (Vernet), Paul Bettany (Silas), Jean Reno (Bezu Fache), Alfred Molina (Bishop Aringarosa), Jean-Pierre Marielle (Sauniere), Etienne Chicot (Lt. Collet); Runtime: 148; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Brian Grazer/John Calley; Columbia Pictures; 2006)

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The movie felt lifeless, and even though it’s competently made it’s not thrilling. It’s painfully tedious, too talky, overlong, overstuffed, unmoving, unconvincing, heartless, wishy-washy and gutless. The studio relied on hype over the book’s controversy with the church to create a welcome free publicity and a clamoring for the fans of the book to see how it would play out on film. The Vatican has condemned it for what they say is mocking their boy Jesus and calling their religion a lie. The film’s a colossal disappointment considering how it’s based on a mega-bestselling derivative religious mystery story (some 40 million copies sold) and enjoyed throughout the world as a moving mystery story. But when I saw middle-brow director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”) at the helm and the hack Brian Grazer as the producer, I wasn’t expecting anything but the stinker I got. It succeeded only in making an exciting and controversial story dull (overloaded with factoids and complicated allegations of the early church), silly (I found myself giggling at times when I was supposed to be taking it serious), non-controversial (watering down the material to a point it takes the starch out of its argument by having a symbologist act as a doubter and making sure the believers don’t get too sore by going out of the way not to make the church look bad) and by displaying no feel or courage to open it up and let the story burst forward with energy (the film’s big payoff turns out to be not so big or shocking). These mediocres are good at making money but are not good at taking a chance at offending anyone to tell it the way it is when the whole idea of the fiction book was to be passionate, a shocker and turn over the applecart on basic Christian beliefs by making the reader think that maybe The Greatest Story Ever Told is nothing but a lie (the operative word is think, which the film tries to brainwash you into believing is not necessary in a big-budget movie). After all its compelling premise is that a nice Jewish boy like Jesus married and procreated, and was just a mortal man and not like the church says the Son of God. If that can’t get your blood riled up on either side of the debate, then blame Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman for their weak pulp-like presentation and inability to go with the spirit of the book.

It opens as an elderly museum curator Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is killed by an albino monk named Silas (Paul Bettany) in Paris’ Louvre, on orders from Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina). The killer and the bishop are both members of a Catholic organization called Opus Dei. A stern, unshaven police captain, Fache (Jean Reno), interrupts a book signing to bring in Langdon (Tom Hanks), an American professor of religious symbology at Harvard (a fictionalized position), to look at the strange cult symbols the corpse painted with his own blood on himself before he died. Soon a nervous police cryptologist, Sophie (Audrey Tautou), shows up to sneak a message to Langdon that tells him he is in danger from Fache, who wants to arrest him for the murder. The two escape into familiar thriller territory to try and locate the real killer (we see Silas flagellating himself to capture the pain of Jesus and then murdering a nun when she fails to help him). Sophie also reveals to the innocent man that she was the victim’s granddaughter and that good ole grandpa was knocked off because he possessed a secret if revealed could bring down the foundations of Western Christianity, in particular the Roman Catholic Church.

Despite being on-the-run from the obsessed shadowy Fache, the chase is dull as Hanks and Tatou (both miscast) look puzzled on how to act earnest and deliver meaningless lines. But when they arrive at Langdon’s scholarly friend’s beautiful Chateau Villette, just outside of Paris, Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), a foremost British scholar on the history of the Holy Grail, a cripple who walks with two canes and has enough vinegar in him to bark out harsh orders at his manservant Remy (Jean-Yves Berteloot), they have met an actor who acts as if he really belongs in this film and for a moment the film becomes surprisingly pleasurable due to the mischievous way Ian minces his words, artfully makes his role into a campy one and plays with the two lesser thespians as if they were snacks for his shark-like appetite.

The chase for the Holy Grail goes to London, with the cripple, the symbologist and the cryptologist talking their heads off about such things as the true meaning of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and the secret organization called the Priory of Scion. The stopover in Great Britain also gives us a chance to see the Temple Church, Westminster Abbey and Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel. Those sightseeing tours were well worth the movie’s ticket price and, as an added treat, we also saw the exterior of Paris’ St. Sulpice church (they refused interior shots).

In the end the team of Howard, Goldsman and Grazer turn the mystery into such an inoffensive and humdrum safe vehicle, that you wonder what all the fuss was about. The filmmakers seemed more worried about screwing it up and being chided by the conservative Christian community, then in laying it on the line as a work of conviction. They even added on a part that tells us it’s alright to believe whatever we want to but acknowledge that whatever, the story of Jesus is an important part of civilization and his influence as a spiritual leader is significant. The filmmaker goes out of the way to prove he’d rather be a responsible person than a daring filmmaker, as he makes nice to everyone. No one has to worry here about the unraveling of a 2,000-year-old secret, as the public will most certainly not change their minds about the church one way or the other after seeing such a timid presentation that tries to please everyone. In any case, I found too little in the film that pleased or excited me. If it weren’t for the book, I wonder how well the box office would be for this shallow blockbuster film (the usual fare at your local mall).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”