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May 26, 2006

After Viewing ''Da Vinci Code''

Roy Meachum

Last Friday's column unloaded my personal baggage going into the film version of "The Da Vinci Code." Many of my pre-viewing suppositions proved false.

In the first place, let me say up front, the stellar poets of The New York Times and The Washington Post proved wrong. The flick I saw deserved neither the ridicule nor attempted devastation endorsed by the nation's foremost newspapers.

Silly season seems to be upon us. The authors of equally scathing notices attempted similarly to eviscerate "An American Haunting," which proved a subdued version of those ghost stories that fascinate the younger generation. "Haunting" did little to merit the rage. Its box-office receipts were eminently respectable, especially for a flick that flittered through in the lull before this season's first real blockbuster busted through.

"The Da Vinci Code" was the real target. Having sold millions of copies and made hundreds of millions, the long-time best seller might be considered fair game for anyone who came along. Anyone, that is, who took pride in his talent for invective and ridicule.

Presuming everybody must have read the book is, at its best, mere presumption. And if they did, it would be another presumption to assume they all would have recalled the details of the subplots; there were so many.

Beside my bed lies a novel on the French kings' eradication of the Cathers, a medieval sect in Southwestern France that dared to differ with Rome. They were supposedly heretics, but another theory holds that, like the Templars, they were killed for their money. Children, women and men, it made no difference.

Author Dan Brown twisted the historical truth about the Templars for plot purposes; he makes them appear the militant protectors of the so-called Da Vinci Code, a piece of fiction based primarily on another fiction, a set of documents that mysteriously appeared some 50 years back. The bag and baggage of the secret "chronicles" rests in the French national library.

Another element in Mr. Brown's story I strongly find true, although his fiction assigns a false reason; but fiction's like that.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the First Council of Nicaea was called to confront the issue of whether Jesus Christ was human or divine. That, of course, is the central question of the book and the film. Obviously, the hundreds of bishops present decided he was not a man but the son of God. Only two votes went otherwise.

The first Nicaean council was, according to the book, the very first coming together from all the corners of the new faith, which had been officially recognized only few years earlier as the state's religion.

In addition to the accomplishments listed in the encyclopedia, Mr. Brown holds that sub-rosa dialogues led to the subjugation of women; they were made merely vassals of males, maybe not at Nicaea as the book charges, but at sometime before, during or shortly after the councils.

This is fact that was confirmed in the wake of second Vatican, the church's most recent council of all the world's Catholic bishops, which started with the First Council of Nicaea.

As you certainly noticed, the film's debut ignited spirited and widespread debate that lavished upon "The Da Vinci Code" all the focus and beard-pulling normally reserved for the highest and weightiest problems known to man.

As I wrote last Friday, the alleged marriage and children between Jesus and Mary Magdalene could scarcely provoke such a bloody uproar. Suggestions that theirs was not a strictly kosher relationship had been bruited about for centuries.

Since all of Christianity was shaped by Nicaea and its era, women have had to fight for equality in every sect and church; only in the late 20th century did the foremost liturgical faiths, Episcopal and Lutheran, accepted female members' rights to lead congregations, including handing out communion.

The Vatican has relented, but not to the point that Catholic women may now hand out communion; but they appear on the altar as handmaidens to priests. Not the recognition many wanted, as learned first-hand in Washington and Rome, where I covered the church in the post-Vatican II years.

So, after all this commentary and speculation, what did I think of the picture?

The film version of "The Da Vinci Code" is too literal and too long. I'll explain.

In efforts to avoid criticism that the flick is "nothing like the book," frequently heard when any best seller's adaptation appears on the screen, Director Ron Howard decided to keep at least suggestions of everything. Since Mr. Brown presented a virtual mélange of Christianity's 2000 years, Mr. Howard wound up with a two and a half hour film.

Top billing Tom Hanks and French actress Audrey Tautou function at high speed, getting all the details in, leaving the acting to a great British actor. Ian McKellan brings Shakespearean sound-and-fury to his villain's role; while he's on screen all theological doubts and cinematic ponderings are held at distant bay.

Having read the book, I had absolutely no problem enjoying the film; I understand but still pity anyone who does not because of a failure to grasp the reality: The Da Vinci Code is only fiction, a made-up story, not a fool's tale, but a good read made into a non-bad movie. Whatever others might say.

My further thoughts can be heard on WFMD's Morning News Express. Host Bob Miller and I frequently disagree, on Friday mornings at 8:40 or so.

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