Fact or fiction?

The religious world braces itself for the screen release of 'The Da Vinci Code.'

hanks da vinci 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
hanks da vinci 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
For the second time in three years, Hollywood is looking on in suspense as a film connected to the life and crucifixion of Jesus arrives in theaters amidst a global barrage of controversy. The Da Vinci Code, the film adaptation of Dan Brown's massive worldwide bestseller, premieres in theaters across the globe this weekend and opened in Israel on Thursday, with little but promotional trailers and the novel itself available to suggest what the movie might contain. That, of course, hasn't stopped Catholics and other observant Christians around the world from protesting the new movie, which cost an estimated $125 million and would surprise few show business insiders if it matched the soaring box office totals of The Passion of the Christ, the previous religiously-themed movie to spark rancorous debate with its take on Jesus' last days. And while Israel has so far been spared the demonstrations and legal protests that have taken place as far away as South Korea and India, interest in the film is running high, despite the country's Jewish-majority population. Brown's 2003 novel has topped local bestseller charts in both Hebrew and English, indicating that Israel has done its part in contributing to the book's phenomenal international sales, which, according to the author's website, have now topped 60 million copies. TV and print ads for the film have proliferated in the final weeks before the movie's release, with the Hebrew-language media covering The Da Vinci Code as diligently as they have other recent big budget thrillers. Religious anxieties about the movie have also made their way to Israel, mirroring in miniature responses by the Vatican and other Christian groups to the film's impending release. While a spokesperson at the Vatican's Tel Aviv embassy declined to comment on The Da Vinci Code - the Pope and most other high-ranking Catholic officials have also kept silent - offshoot group Opus Dei began a small-scale campaign last month to draw attention to what it calls distortions in the film, including its treatment of Jesus' life and of Opus Dei itself. The Da Vinci Code, for the increasingly small percentage of humanity which hasn't read it, breathlessly recounts the overnight adventures of Robert Langdon, a Harvard University "symbologist" awakened in his Paris hotel room to examine a bizarre crime scene at the Louvre. The museum's lead curator, the elderly Jacques Sauniere, has been fatally shot in one of the major galleries, and stripping himself naked, arranges a set of seemingly indecipherable clues before his death minutes later. Arriving at the museum in the middle of the night, Langdon quickly meets Sophie Neveu, a master code breaker who also manages to be attractive, emotionally vulnerable and single. The granddaughter of the murdered curator, Neveu will soon become a fugitive alongside Langdon, who, it turns out, has unwittingly become the target of misdirected police suspicions. As the pair evade law enforcement officials and work to solve the mysterious riddles left behind by Sauniere, they must also outwit Silas, the homicidal albino monk who will stop at nothing to satisfy the demands of the Teacher, a menacing figure who appears to rank somewhere near the top of the Opus Dei hierarchy. Sony Pictures, the worldwide distributor of The Da Vinci Code, has raised eyebrows with its secretive pre-release handling of the new movie, which has involved zero test screenings - unusual for a film this expensive - and press screenings seemingly scheduled for the last possible minute before opening day. The lack of publicity has left film industry veterans guessing about the studio's strategy: is Sony trying to minimize controversy and preserve interest in its product, or has it simply turned the juggernaut novel into a big screen dud? In the absence of more substantive details, bloggers and some entertainment writers have turned their attention to Tom Hanks, theorizing that the actor's shaggy new haircut - he plays Robert Langdon in the film - may distract audiences from the plot, thereby driving down The Da Vinci Code's returns at the box office. (As fans of the credibility-stretching book would agree, crazier things have happened.) Perhaps because of the ambivalent buzz, The Da Vinci Code's author has gone to great lengths expressing his confidence in the film, calling it "mesmerizing" and a reminder of "why I loved movies as a kid" in a speech aired on public radio recently in the US. Trailers suggest filmmakers have stuck quite closely to the novel in its onscreen counterpart, which co-stars Audrey Tatou (Amelie) as Sophie Neveu and Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind, Wimbledon) as the violent Opus Dei adherent. If that's the case, pre-release opponents will feel more than justified in their criticisms of the film, which they assail not only for its portrayal of Opus Dei and contemporary Vatican politics, but also because of its revisionist take on the Gospel and early Church history. Beyond the book's negative portrayal of Opus Dei and Church officials - more on that below - it's angered an even broader spectrum of conservative Christians with its suggestion that Mary Magdalene, a reformed prostitute in the accepted narrative, was in fact Jesus' wife and the mother of his son and daughter. The idea that Jesus fathered two children and that his descendants live on today is a direct contradiction of nearly 2,000 years of church teachings, as are The Da Vinci Code's suggestions that much of Christian iconography is merely ripped off from ancient Egyptian and other pagan religions. Traditional Christians have also been less than enthusiastic about the book's insinuation that much of papal history has been about denying the "Sacred Feminine" - the idea that women are uniquely holy - in order to advance misogynistic and corrupt church policies. "I think the book does a lot of injustice to Christianity - both to the Church and to the Christian story," says Sharon Roubach, an instructor at Jerusalem's David Yellin College of Education. A specialist in western Christianity and film, Roubach has developed her own course on cinematic images of Jesus, but she says she isn't interested in seeing The Da Vinci Code. "It's low literature and popular cinema, and I think it's something that will dissolve very quickly," she said. Also avoiding the film is Christophe Rico, director of the Opus Dei Information Office in Israel. A professor of French and ancient Greek at Hebrew University and the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, the French-born Rico provides a striking contrast to the Opus Dei characters of The Da Vinci Code. The mild-mannered Rico appears to share nothing in common with the book's villainous Opus Dei characters, patiently identifying inaccuracies in Brown's novel and providing a thin packet of information about the group's history and practices transmitted to him from its headquarters in Rome. Much of the problem, and much of the group's outrage, Rico says, stems from what is both the book's greatest narrative trick and one of its most problematic shortcomings. Because The Da Vinci Code mixes historical fact with frequent flights of narrative fancy, it's difficult for the reader to establish what's true and what's an invention (a charge aimed at a number of other intensely debated Hollywood productions, most recent among them Steven Spielberg's Munich, which drew particular anger from the Israeli intelligence community last December by using a discredited book as the basis for its portrayal of the country's response to the terrorist murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics). Brown has unabashedly trodden the line between fact and fiction in his promotion of The Da Vinci Code, writing on the book's opening page (which is itself entitled "Fact"), "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate" - a claim which may be true in the case of physical descriptions but is harder to prove when it comes to assertions about hidden messages and religious practices which, the author himself repeatedly notes, would have been purposely shrouded from view if they were ever in fact practiced. "It's science fiction," Rico says of the book. "It's like trying to learn history from Indiana Jones." Foremost among Opus Dei's tactics for dealing with the movie was the February delivery of an open letter to Sony Corporation shareholders, officers and employees. In the letter, the group wrote that a disclaimer at the film's start "making clear that this is a work of fiction... would be a sign of respect towards the figure of Jesus Christ, the history of the Church, and the religious beliefs of viewers." The filmmakers, however, have chosen to ignore the request, as has been the case in other recent religious controversies emanating from Hollywood. "If you are going to take any sort of movie at face value, particularly a huge-budget motion picture like this, you'd be making a very big mistake," Hanks told London's Evening Standard last week. The film's director, Ron Howard, expressed similar sentiments in an interview with Reuters before leaving for Cannes, telling the news service, "I think that people's faith is nothing to take lightly. I have a great deal of respect for people of faith, all faiths. At the same time, it is a work of fiction. It's not meant to offend, it's not theology. If anyone thinks the story is going to be upsetting, they shouldn't see it." But despite filmmakers' explicit warnings not to take their new movie too seriously, The Da Vinci Code appears to have exerted exactly the type of influence feared by church leaders. Findings reported in the British press earlier this week revealed that readers of The Da Vinci Code were twice as likely as non-readers to believe Jesus had fathered children. (Some 60 percent of Da Vinci readers agreed with the idea, as compared to 30 percent of non-readers.) Perhaps still more troubling was the poll's second finding, which showed Da Vinci readers were more than four times more likely than non-readers to agree with the statement that Opus Dei members had committed murder in the name of the Church. While the proportion was still far from a majority - 17 percent of Da Vinci readers said they agreed with the statement - the results should give pause to those who simply assume movie viewers will successfully sort the fact from the fiction. The poll's results may be of particular interest in Israel, where anxiety flared two years ago over The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's gory and staggeringly lucrative depiction of the final hours in Jesus' life. Despite requests by Jewish leaders that a disclaimer be inserted at the beginning of the film, Gibson released the movie without any suggestion that The Passion reflected his own personal beliefs or that it was the Holy Land's Roman occupiers, not Jesus' fellow Jews, who put the Christian messiah to death. Unlike Howard and Hanks, in fact, Gibson presented his film as a purely factual account of Jesus' torture and crucifixion, unashamedly telling reporters and filmgoers that his film had improved upon renderings of the Gospels which offered a different depiction of those events. The current controversy represents something of an irony for the conservative Opus Dei, many of whose members avidly praised Gibson's portrayal of Jewish participation in the crucifixion - a portrayal, according to Jewish advocates, that contradicted the 1965 Vatican edict exonerating Jews from responsibility for Jesus' execution. Blame for the death had for centuries been used to incite anti-Semitic hatred and violence; Gibson's "traditionalist" interpretation of Catholicism rejects the 1965 ruling. The Da Vinci Code may bring Jews and Opus Dei adherents together, however, as a result of the conspiracy theory it weaves around the tiny Catholic offshoot. Obsessively secretive and loyal only to itself, the Opus Dei depicted in the novel bears many of the same negative stereotypes historically attributed to Jews. Possessing political powers highly disproportionate to the group's actual size (see sidebar), Opus Dei is portrayed as unceasingly violent and ruthless, with one fictional group follower actually going so far as to murder a nun. Aided by its seemingly inherent duplicity, the group manipulates everyone around it with vast financial reserves. Roubach, the Christianity and film scholar, acknowledges the false stereotypical similarities but says Opus Dei members will likely react most strongly to the film's vision of Jesus and Mary Magdalene - a response that will put The Da Vinci Code closer to Martin Scorsese's controversial 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, which portrayed a Jesus racked by self-doubt and, while on the cross, by visions of a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. "This is a common trope," she said of The Da Vinci Code's central conspiracy theory. She cited another film involving Mel Gibson - 1997's straightforwardly titled Conspiracy Theory - as evidence of such theories' popularity. "People enjoying watching this stuff," she said.