Occasionally, you have to feel sorry for organized religion. Either people are piling onto it like rabid soccer hooligans after an unbroken 1-1 tie, or they are sycophantically kowtowing to it like is actually has all the answers. In between, formulated faith sticks its know-it-all fingers into everyone's existential pies, shrewdly perceiving that it stands a better chance of conversion than aversion in the process. With a set of edicts and dogmas that are older than time itself and a super-serious means of keeping it that way – mainly damnation for all eternity – spiritual conviction has it pretty sweet. But like George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or the coincidences between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy's assassinations, religious history is hampered by several long standing maxims that no longer bear up under scrutiny. For every person who believes that women should play a bigger role in the Church, even going so far as becoming priests, there are those who still won't touch a steak on Friday night. The idea of progress for most major belief systems is something like Vatican II, where Cardinals, Bishops and the Pope get together and bang out fire and brimstone memos for everyone to believe in, or fry defying.
No wonder change, or even the hint of modification, is met with such fury and outrage. Even the merest suggestion that there is some hidden truth behind the Church's overly traditional teachings is usually met with Salem Witch Hunt style accusations. Dan Brown has experienced such a backlash. Since the author wrote his controversial bestsellerThe Da Vinci Code, he has been accused of being everything from an idiot to a servant of Satan. Now comes a new DVD documentary from The Disinformation Company called The Da Vinci Code Decoded. It hopes to help (or maybe that's hinder) Brown's claims, in the name of fiction, that Christianity has some real familial skeletons in the closet.
In 2003, Dan Brown published The Da Vince Code, a standard high-octane thriller that centered on an ancient sect, a well-kept secret and the hidden messages in a famous painter's pictures. As he had done before with Angels and Demons (his Illuminati vs. the Catholic Church page turner), Brown used heretofore unknown elements of religious belief and some faux-fictional blasphemy to craft a crackerjack fiction that almost instantly connected with the public. Within weeks, The Da Vinci Code was on The New York Times Bestseller list (where it stayed for 32 weeks) and was soon purchased by Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment, with Opie himself helming the future film production. Naturally, with success comes naysayers and none have been more vocal than those taking issue with Brown's book. Mostly, they have balked at contentions that the story's startling secret (which will be discussed later) was not based in scholarship or research, but in the near-profane beliefs of some very staunch false prophets. Everyone, from religious leaders to PhDs came crawling out of their ivory towers to praise or pile on Brown. Now, Disinformation and founder Richard Metzger have fashioned a kind of documentary supplement to Brown's boasts, looking to clarify the clutter once and for all. In The Da Vinci Code Decoded, writer/presenter Martin Lunn offers his own views on the book's truth, as well as the consequences thereof.
It's really hard to figure out just what the agenda of The Da Vinci Code Decoded is supposed to be. On one hand, you've got the debunkers, the people who applaud David Brown for bringing this unique approach to Christianity to the fore, while picking apart his "fictionalization" of the facts. Then there are those who seem to be supporting the man and every inference he makes like it's some 'taken for granted' Gospel truth (pun intended). All agree that the story of Da Vinci, the Templar Knights and the Priory of Sion makes for an excellent page-turner. But what we are supposed to draw out of this amazingly interesting series of talking heads is remote and sort of foggy. If it's a ringing endorsement of Brown, it sure doesn't come across that way. And if it's supposed to undermine his scholarship and our literary ability, the condemnations are light and airy. Indeed, the most aggravating aspect of this otherwise stellar dissertation is the lack of a theme, a clear cinematic topic sentence to tell us what all the pontification and proselytizing is about. The introduction to the film tells us that this is kind of a study guide, a watch along reference source for many of Brown's ideas and most controversial conventions. For those who've read the book, this may indeed seem like a wealth of wonderful insight. All others will be dazzled, but perhaps not for the reasons intended. Frankly, if you believe in the infallibility of the church and the purity of faith, this dissection of Christianity's more conspiratorial concepts will leave you cold, and maybe even concerned.
In any case, one thing is for sure: author and presenter Martin Lunn is out to promote the holy heretic out of his own book (from which this Disinformation documentary is based, or is that visa versa). Most of the time, The Da Vinci Code Decoded seems like an infomercial – albeit an excellent, well made advertisement – to pump up flagging Amazon sales. There is no denying that both Brown and his brethren have a great tale to tell, and Lunn seems to be looking for his place in this newly formed pop culture phenomenon. If you don't know by now, the wildly successful The Da Vinci Code novel offers up a very contentious, divisive premise. It proposes within its thriller plot that a secret society within the Church has gone to extreme measures to keep secret the information that Christ was actually married to Mary Magdalene and fathered children. Unknowingly, Leonardo Da Vinci (a famous Church critic) placed hints of this fact in his artworks and scientific studies. Naturally, someone comes along and discovers the truth and sacrilegious hijinx ensue. Like The Hot Zone when it first hit, or that pathetic attempt at homespun philosophy, Chicken Soup for the Soul, this seemingly arcane summer day beach read became a full out multimedia event, turning the tome into a must-read source for many a water cooler debate. Naturally, the ersatz impious concept at the heart of the narrative – Jesus' potential humanizing – was the source for much of the outrageous (not to mention outraged) interest. But Brown also crafted a pure piece of populist pulp, taking an arcane idea and fitting it into a standard voyage of discovery formula.
Lunn is apparently out to support Brown, to protect him from detractors who argue that his sensationalized take on theology is rooted in fantasy, not reality. After watching The Da Vinci Code Decoded, you will realize that at least part of that overly simple pro-Church response is complete garbage. As notorious or atheistic as it sounds, the Old and New Testament are NOT the last word and complete thoughts on the life of Christ and the foundations of his faith. For decades, scholars have argued over such legitimate contenders to the appendix throne as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic Gospels. Anyone who believes that The Bible sitting on their tabletop or firmly placed in their hip or coat pocket is the ONLY version of the greatest story ever told is sadly misinformed. The current Good Book that everyone touts is actually the "authorized" printing of the Prince of Peace's saga, a document directly influenced by Roman, not Jewish or Christian manipulation. One of the more interesting aspects of The Da Vinci Code Decoded is the notion that the Roman Emperor Constantine was indeed more like an editor, and less of a devote follower, when it came to Jesus and his teachings. It is Constantine that conforms Christmas to December 25th. It is Constantine who melds a pagan egg ritual with Christ's resurrection to formulate Easter. And it is Constantine who decides that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only Gospels worth keeping as part of the official, non-wicked, party line.
For that revelation alone (which, of course, can be argued as having as much FACTUAL basis as The Bible itself), The Da Vinci Code Decoded is a remarkable narrative. Listening to Dr. James Robinson, author of The Nag Hammadi Library (a comprehensive looks at the Gnostic Gospels) point out the inconsistencies, the changes and the re-interpretations of time honored traditions and beloved parables is a real eye opener. It does what so many of the faithful hate about discussions of their beliefs – it grounds them in an almost undeniable reality of human beings, personalities and overly important agendas. Had this DVD stopped there, with a few more minutes of in-depth illustration on the subject, it would have been amazing. Indeed, someone needs to put out a response to the constant conservative call for a further mixing of religion and the real world in our everyday life. But Lunn's main focus is on Brown and his bestseller, so most of the discussion and explanation centers on the famous Renaissance artist and the canvas-based messages he was sending. Unfortunately, this is one area of The Da Vinci Code Decoded that doesn't quite live up to the titular hype. Instead of walking us through example after example of Leonardo's secret system, we are given some background on his unorthodox beliefs (very profane for their time – and even today) and an interest-heightening hint at some of the clues enclosed in his works. "The Last Supper" discussion is illuminating, if not a little forced (seems like the revelations are both obvious and wildly imaginative) and the visual examples present a compelling proposition.
But just like almost everyone else in this film, Lynn Picket and Clive Prince (our Da Vinci experts) have a book to promote, and they are reluctant toward anything resembling full disclosure. Several times we are referenced to their work, or reminded that Brown flatteringly pilfered some of their best scholarship. But we never really get the full idea of what Da Vinci was trying to imply with his images (we get teasing tidbits – the rivalry between Jesus and John the Baptist, the importance of Mary Magdalene) and our cautious couple is keeping a great deal of information close to their vests. This approach often hampers The Da Vinci Code Decoded. It infers knowledge that we do not have, or requires a little too much outside reading to garner its full impact. Such a conceit in not inappropriate – after all, there is a 'preaching to the converted' mentality at play here – and really never destroys the dynamics. But it would have been helpful to have some manner of foundation before diving into the intricate details (or lack thereof). It is perhaps, a prerequisite, that Brown's Code be purchased and plowed through before watching this documentary. Some of the stranger material, the elements that the speakers take for granted would then possibly make more sense. This is not to suggest that The Da Vinci Code Decoded is convoluted or confusing. Far from it. But like suddenly being thrown into a foreign society where you don't know the language, the customs or the etiquette, this documentary can leave you feeling lost.
Besides, there are some individuals here more than willing to confuse the issue without resorting to carefully considered marketing mandates. Henry Lincoln, author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, seems determined to talk out of both sides of his mouth simultaneously and often. Playing a game of pure semantics (centering on the notions of, if what is proven is truth and what truth itself actually proves) he dismisses Brown's book as he seems to champion it, calling all of the author's contentions fictitious as he goes on to then point out the portions of his book that say the exact same things. This is a man either extremely pissed off that someone has taken his research and made a mainstream mint off it (indeed, all the writers here seem equally disingenuous in their praise) or merely out to buck the trend. His position baffles as it bolsters the overall theme. Margaret Starbird, who wrote a book about Mary Magdalene called The Woman with the Alabaster Jar on the other hand, is just flat out odd. She starts out sane enough, giving us glimpses into the Church's misogynistic view towards women and how important Mary is to Christ. But then she starts blathering on about goddess power and pre-pagan birthing rituals and the seriousness starts to leech out of her lecture. By the time she is reminding us of the dozens of other "death, three days, resurrection" myths throughout ancient literature, we've stopped paying attention. There is a core of intelligence and intrigue in what she says (and there are many who back her up). But Starbird can't stay focused, and the tangential nature of her talk does derail The Da Vinci Code Decoded,, if only for a moment.
Indeed, if there is one major missing element in this 100-minute argument, it is the lack of a clear opposing proposition. The Church's reluctance on the subject of Jesus, Mary, marriage and children, from Constantine backwards is never really examined. Indeed, the film appears to start from an "organized religion is a ruse" mentality and imagines that's good enough. Like assuming that all politicians are crooks or all lawyers are evil (well, perhaps just the former), The Da Vinci Code Decoded pictures that we are well-informed theologians, nodding with instant recognition when The Knights Templar, or the Priory of Sion is mentioned. It presupposes a knowledge of basic Church policy as it tosses out dogma like it's the times tables. About halfway through the lesson, you'll wonder aloud why the religious officials actually care about this concept. Certainly, the humanizing of Christ impedes his superhero persona making him more of a man made God than a God made man. But where are the dismissals, the outright denials and skeptical scoffing? Balance is a brave thing for any documentary to attempt, but it is also one of the better aspects in a fact-based film. Hearing both sides of a story focuses the true problems and allows you to make up your own mind about the harms proposed and challenges issued. Instead of the discussion about Fr. Sauniére and his mysterious source of wealth, or the famous faces associated with the Scion, some basic sense of scripture or official voice of the Vatican would have done wonders to fill out the facets presented.
Still, for all its insignificant faults and occasional lack of focus, The Da Vinci Code Decoded is a marvelous, mind-bending experience. Individuals entranced by Brown's book (or those who are sitting on their literature-challenged butts waiting for the movie version to hit the local Cineplex) will thoroughly enjoy the revelations here. They will either enhance or cause you to question your reaction to what you've read. If Brown is guilty of anything – since many of the idea owners feel a bit burgled by his bestseller – it is finding a way to make this mishmash of theology, conjecture and fact flow as a work of high class pulp fiction. And though it occasionally trips over itself to get to a point, or clouds the image with overzealous explanation, The Da Vinci Code Decoded is a wonderful way of learning more about a seemingly indecipherable concept. Religion has gone to far further extremes to keep Jesus and his Disciples front and center in people's hearts and home life. A little thing called the Crusades, or the Inquisition helped bolster that extremist belief. The Da Vinci Code is a lot like those urban legends where Ford and Chevy are conspiring to keep the water-powered car off the market, or the cabal behind the FDA's desire to keep the ultimate weight loss aid off of a diet dependent corporate market. From the Masons to Jonestown, faith has fostered a lot of potboiler plate panic among those looking for a less than sacred agenda to the work of the Church. The Da Vinci Code Decoded will only add fuel to that already fiery fallacy furnace. This is a demanding, yet entertaining look at the basics behind Brown's blockbuster.
With a very simple DVD presentation (basic menu, minimal bonus material) The Da Vinci Code Decoded is not some major digital release. Thankfully it has a nice, 1.33:1 full screen transfer to recommend it. This spotless direct from digital video print is clear, crisp and very colorful. There are some technical malfunctions along the way (we get one too many pointless zooms for this critic's caring) and the shimmering, flaring graphic employed to illustrate people's names and titles is over utilized. Still, there is a great deal of detail and atmosphere given off in this image, from the calm, cool comfort of Picknett and Prince's living room setting, to Lincoln's outdoor Q&A. Filled with wonderful images of art and locations, The Da Vinci Code Decoded is a visual, as well as intellectual treat.
This DVD unfortunately comes up short in the sound department. Mastered so massively that every voice is loud, shrill and overwhelming, this is one documentary that will require constant manipulation of the remote control just to manufacture a pleasant aural experience. The Dolby Digital Stereo is far too sensitive, picking up ambient noises that tend to wash out words. Most of the time, the speakers are clear and intelligible and the musical accompaniment is lush and very pleasing. But once individuals get worked up, the disturbing sonic scenarios start playing out. While never so bad as to be baffling, The Da Vinci Code Decoded could have used a better mix between tone and temperament.
Oddly enough, Disinformation adds almost 50 minutes of extras to the DVD, additional interviews on related subjects like John the Baptist, the Holy Grail, Tarot, as well as travelogue style looks at The Louvre (which figures prominently in Brown's book) Westminster Abbey and Rosslyn Chapel. Perhaps the most interesting sections are discussions with Dr. James Robinson on the Gnostic Gospels and Lynn Picknett's fascinating profile of Jesus. Any or all of this material would have been at home in the documentary proper, and all of it acts like support for the contentions presented. There are also some trailers for other Disinformation product, once again supporting the more commercial aspects of this endeavor. Still, overall, this is a fine DVD package.
It is interesting to note how something like The Da Vinci Code is embraced by a populist ideal, while a film that also explored some of the same themes, The Last Temptation of Christ, is resoundingly condemned. Da Vinci isn't without its massive detractors, but there doesn't seem to be the same fervor mounted against Brown as there was against Scorsese and his personal paean to faith. Maybe it has something to do with context. Perhaps, it is all in the presentation. Or maybe it is finally time to revisit the more arcane aspects of religion and sort through all the competing claims to find a system of unity, not division. In any case, The Da Vinci Code Decoded is a grand place to start such a discussion. Disinformation stands at the forefront of skeptical inquiry and this fascinating, frustrating film is a wonderful dissection of tradition and intolerance. While there could have been more concentration on how Constantine reformed the Gospels to fit his agendas, or what exactly is enclosed in Da Vinci's work that inspired such wonder, the elements for a heated dialogue about the validity of current Vatican thinking are well within reach. So maybe Christ didn't wed Mary Magdalene, and there was no such bloodline directly descended from Jesus. But buried within such outrageous ideas are the seeds for some reshaping and rethinking of the entire story of The Bible. Religion has always been a matter of interpretation, and many of the most famous pundits have used their own view of The Word to get their point across. Why Disinformation, Martin Lunn or Dan Brown should be restrained from speaking their minds is baffling. After all, God is supposedly understanding...and forgiving.
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