What’s it like for someone who’s been a member of Opus Dei for more than 20 years to watch "The Da Vinci Code"? It turns out to be a fairly amusing experience. By way of example, try to imagine a British intelligence officer watching a James Bond movie: yes, England exists, and, yes, spies exist, but apart from that, it’s all pretty much hooey. The caricature presented is so unrecognizable, so far off the mark, that you can’t really feel outrage, because you don’t even feel like a target.

Demystifying 'Da Vinci'Unfortunately, the "Da Vinci Code’s" silliness is not nearly as light and entertaining as James Bond’s, but now that the critics seem to have exhausted all the different ways of saying the film is lousy, it’s probably useless to point out its flaws yet again (stale, humorless, boring, long, unimaginative, over-stuffed… it’s all that and more). So I’ll move on to the more interesting question: What exactly went wrong? After all, the book, for all its faults, managed to be fun in a stupid comic-book way. At some level, it hit a chord; it worked. The movie does not.

Perhaps it was a mistake to treat the novel as a thriller. As a thriller, it was only mediocre. As a loopy cocktail of pseudo-culture, however, it was a tour-de-force. That is why the greatest measurable impact of "The Da Vinci Code" has been not on religious practice (more or less unchanged), but rather on tourism (record numbers at sites in Paris, London, and Rome). It is this cultural cocktail--not the thrills, not the supposed “blasphemy”--that is the source of the novel’s allure and runaway sales. Ultimately, it looks as though director Ron Howard erred in trying to make a serious movie out of a fundamentally unserious book. There isn’t a single laugh or thrill in the whole film. Earnest fidelity seems to have been Howard’s goal. Of course, it would have been impossible to cram all the mistakes and absurdities of the novel into even a five-hour film, but in the mere two-and-a-half hours at his disposal, Howard does his solemn best. It’s all there: Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the Gnostic “gospels,” Constantine and the Council of Nicea, medieval witches, the Templars, the Priory of Sion, Clement V, the Crusades, Opus Dei, etc.

"The Da Vinci Code" is so cluttered with historical, symbological, and theological pseudo-facts that it seems hard to imagine any viewer, even one who manages not to doze off, walking out of the theater with a coherent recollection of what exactly has been said--which is probably a blessing. In the long run, this kind of feeble, fictional “attack” will probably end up doing far more good than harm to Christianity, Catholicism, and Opus Dei.

Despite his literal-minded effort to “film the book,” Howard wasn’t afraid to make some significant changes. Some seem to be concessions to the book’s critics; others seem to be provocations. Above all, the central crisis that triggers the novel’s action has been changed completely. The book focuses on a Vatican plan to “disassociate” Opus Dei from the Roman Catholic Church, driving Bishop Aringarosa--the head of Opus Dei--to trust the novel’s villain. In the movie, we have a separate secret society, which includes Aringarosa, within the Church, whose entire purpose is to destroy the Priory of Sion’s big secret: Mary Magdalene’s tomb and the genealogical documents related to Jesus’ supposed descendents.

As a consequence, the character of Aringarosa has been utterly transformed. His "world of the soul, not of the flesh" has been swapped for the abundantly fleshy world of Alfred Molina, the actor who plays the role. Instead of the novel’s devout-but-naive ascetic--who ends up donating millions of dollars to the victims of his scheme--we are given a rotund conniving villain. He’s been fattened up and flattened out--a bad apple, plain and simple, from beginning to end. I happen to live under the same roof as the real head of Opus Dei, so here, too, it’s rather hard for me to see this onscreen bishop as anything but an extra-terrestrial from Hollywood, and I trust that others will see him that way too.

Apparently, between the book’s publication and the movie’s release, the French police captain Bezu Fache found time to join Opus Dei. In fact, in the movie, he is manipulated by Aringarosa, who feeds Fache lies in order to frame Robert Langdon, the story's falsely accused hero. During the same period, Professor Langdon seems to have become more Christian; he is now a baptized Catholic. Instead of constantly backing up Teabing’s ludicrous theories about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, he openly criticizes Teabing’s assault on the divinity of Christ (effectively throwing Teabing’s ravings into doubt) and tells Sophie about how he prayed to Jesus as a child when he’d fallen in a well.

Silas, the “Opus Dei monk” (of which there is no such thing in reality) seems destined for special mention in the annals of absurdity--speaking fluent Latin on his cell phone, whipping himself bloody, and traipsing inconspicuously through the heart of Paris from one assassination to the next in a hooded robe while dripping a trail of blood. Paul Bettany plays him as such a strung-out lunatic that he is probably doing Opus Dei a favor: From now on, it will be enough for a member of Opus Dei to speak in whole sentences and have only one head on his body for everyone to realize that the Opus Dei of cinema and myth is quite different from the reality. Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" has probably inured many people to grotesque scenes of flagellation, but, in any case, Silas’s mode of penance--involving quasi-ceremonial nudity, a lot of Latin, plus large whips and chains, and plenty of blood--is not just wildly exaggerated but explicitly prohibited in Opus Dei. In the self-flagellation we practice, you'd draw more blood flossing your teeth.

In hindsight, it’s evident that it would have taken a miracle to transform the book--a small mountain of pedantic, frequently-erroneous, and consistently incoherent material, with a ludicrous plot and cardboard characters--into a decent movie. While Ron Howard is not a bad director, he is, like Scotty on "Star Trek," clearly “not a miracle worker.” Watching the movie I was reminded of the fatalistic old computer-world dictum: garbage in, garbage out. The inanities which were swallowed so easily when we all read the book are, in the movie, held up in living color to the unforgiving light of day.

Not surprisingly, the vision of Christianity that emerges is both unremittingly negative and a firm embrace of Hollywood stereotypes of the most implausible and anachronistic sort: Silas, of course, in his monastic robes and cowl; cardinals always dressed to the nines; guys in robes chatting away in Latin; even Sister Sandrine, guardian of the Holy Grail's decoy hiding place, dressed up in the middle of the night like Sally Field from the flying nun. The folks who makes these movies need to get out more.

Less surprising, when it comes to theology, the big either/or question that dominates the film--was Jesus human or divine?--seems to be oblivious to the most basic teaching of Christianity: that he was very much both. Isn't that the whole point anyway?

Not to worry, though. The movie’s banal badness simply makes clearer what should have been perfectly obvious all along: the insipid tapwater of "The Da Vinci Code’s" fictional paganism is no competition for the rich red wine of real Christianity. So maybe, here in Rome, we should be raising a glass tonight to Dan Brown and Ron Howard for services rendered.

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