Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch:
‘Da Vinci Code,’ Opus Dei, and choice summer reading

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the June 8, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Movie review

We’ve had hype for months on the new Tom Hanks film The Da Vinci Code. When I first reviewed the book three years ago, before I knew it was going to become a phenomenon, I said (if my memory is correct) that it was an enjoyable mystery thriller, but don’t take the so-called history too seriously.

The Office for Film and Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has rated the film of The Da Vinci Code O – morally offensive. My own personal choice is not to review O-rated films in the Inland Register. This time, I make an exception.

In reading Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, with its very short chapters beginning in Paris’s Louvre and lots of exciting subplots, you can’t help but think it reads like a movie script. The problem is that what looks easy has proved very difficult for screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard. A fairly literal attempt to explain all the codes is dull and slows down the pace of the film. At two hours and 20 minutes, this film seems excruciatingly long.

Tom Hanks is a wonderful actor who doesn’t have much to work with here. All we know is that his character, Robert Langdon, is a Harvard teacher of symbols, and that he once fell in a well and almost drowned. The result is that he is fitted with anxiety when he is in an enclosed space, such as an elevator.

The love story with police cryptotogist Sophie Neveu {Audrey Tautou) is drained of all sexual electricity.

And Tautou, normally a fine actress, doesn’t really smile until a rather unbelievable new ending where Langdon talks about the importance of each person’s faith. To top it off, her heavy French accent leaves the viewer wondering what she has just said at important moments in the film.

The over-the-top Opus Dei “monk,” Silas (played by Paul Bettany), is shown inflicting almost unwatchable corporal punishment to his body after each of the murders he commits. The ripping of the spiked chain called a cilice on and off Silas’ upper thigh is so bloody it reminds this viewer of the unrelenting scourging scenes in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The fact you know Silas is a murderer does not take away from who the real murderer in the Code is. That is the trick awaiting anyone who has not read the book and sees the film.

lan McKellen more or less eats the scenery as Leigh Teabing, a friend of Langdon and an expert on the Grail who happens to live close to Paris is a beautiful chateau. Admittedly, his interpretations of theology and art are his alone and bear little resemblance to the truth.

The music by Hans Zimmer is way too lush and distracts from the film.

As a story, I enjoyed Brown’s book, but the film is a heavy, lumbering mistake with no joy and little real excitement.

The Motion Picture Association of America rates the film PG-13 – Parents Strongly Cautioned for Violence, Some Nudity and Disturbing Images. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates The Da Vinci Code O – morally offensive for all audiences.

Book Review

Silas, the cruel killer in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, has led me to want to know more about the religious movement Opus Dei. The two members of Opus Dei whom I have known during my life as a priest have been very good examples of followers of Christ. And yet my biases and fears about Opus Dei even affected me in relationships with them and in my general reaction to anything said to be part of Opus Dei. Dan Brown’s unfair portrayal of an Opus Dei member has drawn me to John L. Allen’s new book Opus Dei: The Truth About Its Rituals, Secrets and Power (Doubleday, 2005, $24.95).

Late in Allen’s book, he quotes Sharon Clasen, a former member of Opus Dei who has left the Catholic Church and feels that The Da Vinci Code was too soft on Opus Dei. She said, to my surprise, “It failed to capture the essence of the mind control in this.... You didn’t see all the manipulation.” As you can see, John Allen gives you the harsh criticism of Opus Dei. He also gives you the positive comments of former members. He is eminently fair throughout the book – sometimes so fair that the narrative becomes a little dull. But this is the book that may well become the classic in explaining the differing views on Opus Dei. Time magazine, in its April 24, 2006 cover story “The Opus Dei Code,” directly credited Allen’s book so many times it almost became a mantra.

Allen starts with the history of Opus Dei’s priest founder, Josemaria Escriva, canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Allen then gives a view of the key tenants of Opus Dei from the inside, based on 300+ hours of interviews with members and former members from around the world. Then we read of questions about Opus Dei, ranging from secrecy and mortification to the place of women and blind obedience. All this is done with incredible journalistic skills.

If you just have a short time to spend researching Opus Dei, I would urge you to read Allen’s evaluation chapter at the end of the book, titled “The future of Opus Dei.” In it, Allen draws his conclusions and gives excellent advice how Opus Dei could reform itself for the 21st century.

I came away from Alien’s Opus Dei with some of my stereotypes broken. There are some aspects of Opus Dei, such as the sanctification of our daily work, which I like very much. I would still have the concerns Alien has in his suggestions for the future.

The good news from The Da Vinci Code is that in Allen’s Opus Dei we now get a balanced view of a movement active in our Church across the world.

Short Takes

• Doubleday, the publisher of The Da Vinci Code, has seen fit to “throw a bone” to Opus Dei by publishing a new paperback edition of The Way, by Opus Dei’s founder, Josemaria Escriva. It is composed of 999 short aphorisms on topics ranging from Charity and the Holy Mass to Interior Struggle and the Communion of Saints. They were written, as it were, on napkins at different times in St. Escriva’s life. A sample is: “How good Christ was to leave the sacraments to his Church! They are a remedy for all our needs. Venerate them and be very grateful, both to our Lord and to his Church.” The Way is available at $10.95.

• Forty years ago, a young Navy petty officer third class stationed in Hawaii sought out Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. That officer, now Inland Register reporter Mitch Finley, has recently published a new version in contemporary language of The Imitation. A few chapters have been omitted, but the book follows the structure and content of the original. For a new look at an old classic now written for 21st century readers, check out The Heart and Soul of Imitating Christ, published in paperback by Liguori Publications for $12.95.

• For Inland Register readers who love to knit, there is a new book, titled The Knitting Way: A guide to Spiritual Self-Discovery. It bridges the gap between a relaxing hobby and spirituality. Linda Skolnik and Janice MacDaniels combine story and reflection with actual knitting patterns that may be just the ticket to a new way to pray and live ones life in service to others. The publisher is Skylight Paths of Woodstock, Vt. The price for this large quality paperback is $16.99.

• With Fathers’ Day on June 19, there is a beautiful new coffee table book of photographs and stories titled Jewish Fathers: A Legacy of Love. Rabbi Harold Kushner introduces the interviews of fathers ordinary and well known. Lloyd Wolf took the memorable photographs and Paula Wolfson did the interviews of more than 40 fathers. The book is published by Jewish Lights Publishing of Woodstock, Vermont for $30.

(Father Caswell is ecumenical relations officer and archivist for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent contributor to this publication.)

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