Friday, March 07, 2008

The Da Vinci Code: Fighting Faith and Force

Looking for a fascinating movie? Then let Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code entertain you.

While in Paris on business, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), an American professor of symbology, is called to the Louvre. Ostensibly, he is to assist French police to investigate a murder scene covered with mysterious messages.

Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a police cryptologist apparently related to the victim, rescues Langdon from the clutches of her fellow officers. He is to be framed for the murder, she informs him.

To find out what the heck is going on, they have to solve the riddles and find the holy grail (not a cup, by the way). On their quest, they can trust no one — neither the "secular" government nor their own friends. Their only true allies are their courage and their own reasoning minds.

This plot drives the movie along at a breakneck pace: solving riddles, outwitting the police, defeating Leonardo-like inventions. Nearly nothing is detracted from the fun if one thinks that not everything is hundred percent logical. (For instance, it has been noted that the so-called cryptex could in fact be defeated easily by freezing it, so that the vinegar in the booby trap cannot dissolve the document inside.)

Some scenes are noteworthy for Objectivists. There's a Swiss bank where premium accounts allegedly come with safe conduct provided against government persecutors. At one point, the heroes escape in a private jet. Driven by insane religious zeal, the corrupt Catholic police captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) tortures an innocent air traffic controller in order to obtain the flight plan.

This scene may give some Objectivists pause. Even if France had objective laws, none of them could stop Fache from turning his monopoly on the legal use of force into a license to commit crimes against disarmed, defenseless victims. Like any case of corruption, this goes to show that objective laws are vulnerable as long as there remain non-objective lawmen.

What is needed is not so much objective laws as objective people, because through free will people will always be able to ignore the law — and will do so if they believe they are serving a higher good. For a real-life example, think of Kelo v. New London.

Besides these tidbits and the breakneck pace of the plot, there's some fine acting. Hanks, equally at home in comedy and drama, reinterprets the Hitchcock classic of an innocent man entangled in a lethal web of intrigue because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reno plays the role of the fanatic cop like it was written for him — well, it really was.

Yet, both Hanks and Reno are easily outplayed by the brilliant Tautou, playing an atheist heroine haunted by her mysterious past. She perfectly projects the picture of a patently vulnerable character transcending her frailty by a steely resolve to enlighten her past — and to spite the unholy alliance of faith and force intent on sacrificing Langdon.

For a mainstream movie, The Da Vinci Code offers cinematic art galore. Director Ron Howard went to great lengths to visualize the characters' thinking.

When Sophie and Langdon approach Westminster Abbey, for example, discussing Isaac Newton's funeral, semi-transparent eighteenth-century mourners begin milling around them, while the modern City of Westminster fades away to reveal the eighteenth-century cityscape. A little later, as Langdon is pondering the clue of a missing orb on Newton's grave, all the orbs — the planets — start revolving around his head.

A nice twist is the scene where the heroes escape a police trap. The viewer is left in limbo, wondering how they did it, fearing he may never know, until a scene or two later when their escape trick is revealed via flashback. Realism is added by the consistent use of subtitles whenever somebody doesn't speak English. If a character is supposed to speak French, he really does — and the clerics speak Latin.

It certainly makes one reflect on the nature of evil when Opus Dei arch villain Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina) speaks Latin on his cell phone while flying on an executive jet — both obviously provided by victimized producers.

While the question, "What if all the conspiracy theories about the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, and the holy grail were not hoaxes?" makes for a fascinating plot, the movie's theme collapses into a philosophical nullity. Why would an atheist care whether Jesus had a wife and kids?

The Catholic church's wailing about this is like Swift's war over the proper way of cracking an egg. At first glance, who cares whether the faith Jesus founded is to be administered by the church of his friend Peter or by Jesus' family? Worse, there's definitely a sinister streak to the movie, alternately hinting that people are determined by their ancestry or that all that matters is what you believe.

At second glance, however, the controversy has its own benefits. The schism divides religionists — and not only in the fictional universe of The Da Vinci Code. Believe it or not, it's already happening in the real world. The Catholic church is outraged that artists dare to deviate from their dogma. (And mind you, the movie has already been much sanitized versus the book: No longer are church entities like Opus Dei implicated — the evil priests are renegades.)

As per the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Brown-bashing website, they're really losing true believers to Brown. Now the chickens come home to roost: Some believers are defecting the faith set forth in one work of fiction, the Bible, to religiously embrace Brown's equally fictitious tale.

After all, "Brownism" is more humane, not sexist, and less sexually repressed. What has the Catholic church to bring to bear against that? Only that their book is backed by two thousand years of tradition.

On that selfsame website, the church desperately appeals to truth and reason. That's easily the most brazen attempt at concept stealing I've heard of.

The whole affair would be funny if it weren't so serious. Yet, look on the bright side of it. Divide et impera: Let Brown divide religionists — and reason will conquer much faster.

Originally published on July 27, 2006, on The Atlasphere.

P.S. RLC #1 salutes RLC #3, Rennes-le-Ch√Ęteau! ;)

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