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'Da Vinci Code' draws laughs at press screening

By JOHN THAVIS
Catholic News Service

CANNES, France "“ Toward the end of the movie 'The Da Vinci Code," the main character, Robert Langdon, tells his sleuthing partner, Sophie Neveu: 'You are the last living descendent of Jesus Christ."

That line, meant to be the dramatic apex of the film, drew laughs from many of the nearly 900 journalists who viewed the film's first press screening May 16 at the Cannes Film Festival.

The derisive laughter, along with widely critical comments from reporters afterward, summed up the Cannes press reaction to the much-heralded launch of the movie. When the credits ran, silence and a few whistles drove home the response.

The movie sticks to most of the book's controversial religious elements, while softening some of the edges.

Directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, it faithfully depicts the novel's story of intrepid American 'symbologist" Langdon, who follows a coded trail leading to a supposedly age-old secret: that Christ was not necessarily divine, that he was married to Mary Magdalene and that their descendents survive today.

At a press conference in Cannes May 17, Howard said that if people think their religious sentiments are going to be offended by the movie, they should stay away.

'My advice is not to go see the movie if you think you're going to be upset. Wait. Talk to somebody who has seen it. Discuss it. And then arrive at an opinion," Howard said.

'But again, this is supposed to be entertainment. It's not theology and I don't think it should be misunderstood as such," he said.

Hanks told reporters that the film was an opportunity for people to discuss and clarify their feelings about their place in the universe and 'in the mind of God." But it's not a documentary, he said, and he doubted it would alter people's basic religious beliefs.

Hanks, an Orthodox Christian, said his own religious heritage 'communicates that our sins have been taken away, not our brains."

Conspiracy-theory version

In the movie's conspiracy-theory version of Christianity, the church is the bad guy and is depicted as suppressing all evidence of Jesus' alleged marriage.

But one striking difference about the movie is that it lacks anything resembling the famous 'fact" page that prefaced the novel, in which author Dan Brown claimed that 'all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."

The film doesn't make any claim to accuracy of any kind "“ artistic, historical, religious or biblical.

Brown's preface also made a point of saying the Priory of Sion, the novel's organizational keeper of the secret, was real "“ even though it was unmasked as a fraud years ago.

The film keeps the Priory of Sion as the protagonist of the mystery, but "“ unlike the book "“ has Langdon protest at one point that the priory was a known hoax.

Colombia Pictures, in the booklet distributed to journalists at Cannes, noted that while Brown 'contends" the Priory of Sion was real, the documents he cited were proven to be forgeries.

All this tends to underline that the movie is a work of fiction, and to deflate some of the historical assertions that irritated critics of the book.

While the movie's portrayal of the Catholic Church is distinctly unflattering, its treatment of the Catholic organization Opus Dei is particularly negative.

The novel placed Opus Dei in the middle of the church's nefarious efforts to keep secret the 'truth" about Christ, and had a cruel Opus Dei member commit several murders in the process.

In the book, Opus Dei's fictional leader, Bishop Manuel Aringarosa, is a somewhat unwitting figure in the machinations. In the film, however, the bishop operates with Machiavellian ruthlessness.

The sicko murderer, Silas, is a caricature not only of Opus Dei but of religious sentiment in general. A typical sequence: he crosses himself and says, 'God, give me strength"; he pitilessly murders a nun; he prays over her body; he crosses himself; he whips himself bloody as he stands naked in his room; he crosses himself; he phones his superior for further instructions.

Movie in comparison to book

Unlike the book, the movie keeps its distance from the Vatican. Instead, unidentified prelates in a sinister 'Council of Shadows" pull strings in order to cover up the secret life of Jesus. Their secret meeting room is outfitted with a billiard table.

The film retains several of the claims considered outrageous by many Catholic critics: that the Bible as we know it was collated by the 'pagan" emperor Constantine; that alternative gospels recounting the real life of Jesus were suppressed; and that church ritual borrows heavily from pagan mystery religions.

But the film puts these and other claims into the mouth of Leigh Teabing, the story's true villain, and at several points has the hero, Langdon, skeptically questioning these assertions. That too is a change from the book, and adds a veneer of even-handedness to the story.

The movie's historical flashbacks illustrating these supposedly dark chapters of church history were so overdone that they provoked catcalls during the first Cannes screening. The pandemonium-in-vestments version of the Council of Nicaea may especially amuse church historians.

Early reviews from the Cannes screening gave the movie decidedly low marks. Its biggest sin, according to many critics, was that it was dull.

At the press conference, several of the actors in the film weighed in on the religious controversies.

Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Teabing, drew a big laugh when he said: 'I'm very happy to believe that Jesus was married. And I know the Catholic Church has problems with gay people, and I thought this would be absolute proof that Jesus was not gay."

Alfred Molina, who plays Bishop Aringarosa, said he thinks people who read the book and see the movie know they are turning to fictional entertainment, and judge it in that context.

Paul Bettany, who plays Silas, agreed, saying it should be obvious to moviegoers that this is a work of fiction.

Asked about Opus Dei, Hanks said, 'I'm sure they'll take a look at it, and they may hate the movie, or they might not have any problems with it."

The movie was formally presented at the festival May 17 and opens in theaters worldwide May 19.

Protesters comment

Just outside the Cannes festival perimeter, a Catholic nun and priest conducted a quiet prayer campaign against the movie.

Carmelite Sister Mary Michael, of Lincoln, England, knelt and prayed the rosary at the foot of the main entrance hours before the gala movie opening May 17. In her brown habit, she soon found herself a popular figure among journalists, and said she must have given 100 interviews.

'I'm praying for all the movie stars and for Dan Brown and all of them "“ they're not bad people. I'm also praying to make reparation for what is really a bad story, an old heresy in the church that's just being used again," she said.

The nun, who belongs to a Carmelite branch called the Sisters of Peace and Mercy, said she came to Cannes with little money and no place to stay, and has been generously helped by everyone. She contacted the police, and they gave her permission to make her prayerful protest.

She handed out holy cards explaining the rosary and invited people to join her at a nearby church for Mass, where she said 'the true body and blood of Our Lord can be received."

Canadian Father Bernard Heffernan stood nearby, handing out posters, books and pamphlets to counter the film's message.

Buoyed by the initial critical reaction to the film, he said it seemed 'The Da Vinci Code" bubble may have burst.

'What bothers me most is that it reflects the lack of truth in the world today. It doesn't seem to matter anymore what's true and what's not," he said.

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