While Dan Brown and his passable pulp fiction don't need more attention, Judge Bill Gibron believes this frequently fractured documentary deserves some considered contemplation.
A Dan Brown Defense/Debunking That Occasionally Trips Over Itself
Is there really more to discuss concerning Dan Brown's bafflingly successful literary blockbuster The Da Vinci Code? Is there really anyone left in the world who doesn't already know its "shocking" narrative hook (that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a baby) or the illogical lengths the Church is supposedly going to keep the subject secret? Hasn't every scholar in the known universe weighed in, pro or con, skeptical or sold on this cottage industry turned global conglomerate? Hasn't the Disinformation Company created enough discussion/debate companion pieces to more or less corner the market on said meaningful discussion? According to Sony Pictures and director Jonathan Stack, the answer is apparently "no." Twice nominated for an Oscar, this documentarian believes there are still issues buried deep inside Brown's book that are worth discussing, concepts usually corrupted by practitioners of faith and false scholarship. The result is the 90-minute movie Secrets of the Code and, while one has to admit the premise is original, the follow-through ends up being another religion vs. reality debate.
Stack has certainly come up with an ingenious way back into the material. Starting off not by focusing on the truth or falsehood of Brown's many fictional claims, he begins by wondering why so many people are eager to demystify Christ. In essence, the director suggests that it's the notion of questioning organized belief and its frequently baffling contradictions that makes Da Vinci so divisive—and so popular. If we can get to the heart of as to why people are so unfulfilled by standardized dogma, we can get to the real purpose and place of the Church in daily life. Indeed, in a current climate that sees evangelicals setting public policy, where individuals running for president actually admit to believing in creationism over evolution, and in a time when the separation of God and government is slowly eroding away, this could be a promising ideological deconstruction. Sadly, Secrets barely gets out of the starting blocks on this discussion before reverting to the standard Dan Brown demarcation over what it "right" and "wrong" within the novel's narrative. Nothing is more annoying than having your interest piqued, only to hear the same old arguments over whether the leaning figure in Da Vinci's painting of "The Last Supper" is John or Mary.
It's not long before the entire movie freefalls into the standard statements. The Gnostic Gospels are given the once over twice (individuals supporting them do a fine job of defending their relevance) while, surprisingly, the book's Renaissance namesake is shuttered aside as "inconsequential" to the discussion. The Divine Feminine requires a real explanatory exposition, and one expert's obsessions with the implied vulvas supposedly scattered throughout ancient cave art borders on the satiric. But Stack manages to keep it together, mostly out of the inherent intrigue of the content. It's genuinely interesting to hear how the Church chose the four "official" Gospels out of the many that were vying for attention, how Christianity debunks accusations over their dismissal of Mary Magdalene by paying her the most meaningless of lip service ("I mean, we build churches to her, right?"), or how the prevailing position of the Christ story as allegorical myth appears to be gaining significant acceptance. Indeed, had Stack concentrated his efforts on telling a definitive thesis about Brown's book, undermining the aspects that deserve criticism and staying focused on getting to the heart of each point, we'd have a stellar exposé on our hands.
But this documentary suffers from some of the same confused conceits that have ruined other attempts at deciphering/demeaning the Code. Like a speaker who constantly goes off on important but mostly unconnected tangents, Secrets just can't help but enjoy the sound of its own ideas. It's obvious that Stack simply lets his numerous talking heads blather on, believing (rightly so, one might add) that they have nothing but interesting ideas to spew. But without a clear direction to take the discussion, statements become contradictory, then confused. As a result, we don't even remember what the thesis is supposed to be. Paganism melds into the Gnostic Gospels before suddenly switching to a whiplash-like hint of nuclear war and terrorism (complete with 9/11 nods). Huh? Upon closer inspection, Stack is using Dan Burstein's book version of Secrets of the Code as his foundation. Perhaps it should be required reading for all viewers, since it will fill in blanks the film fails to address. Indeed, what this documentary should do and what it does are decidedly different—and both are equally engaging. One is just a lot more work than the other. There is a wealth of wisdom behind Stack's proposed explanation. His film contains a virtual who's who of famous educational and theological minds. But smarts doesn't always equal entertaining, especially when filtered through a fractured filmmaking style. Secrets of the Code is still very good. It could have been amazingly great.
Distributed by Sony and presented in a crystal clear 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, Secrets of the Code looks amazing. There are shots of foreign vistas and ancient ruins that will simply take your breath away. The colors remain sharp throughout and the details are easily discernible. On the auditory side of things, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix delivers readily discernible dialogue and narrative. Susan Sarandon takes us through the occasionally arch commentary, her descriptions and set-ups sometimes sounding like excerpts from a New Age novelty tome. Unfortunately, there are no bonus features offered, which is a shame. Many of the individuals spoken too deserve recognition beyond a minor title card before their appearance. Mini-biographies or bibliographies would have been nice, as would links to Web sites and other areas of further research. While Brown and Da Vinci may feel tapped out, these people obviously have things to say beyond this book. We should have access to their other thoughts as well.
All lack of center aside, Secrets of the Code is a million times more intriguing than the horrid Ron Howard adaptation of the best-selling novel. It stands in stark contrast to other efforts that take a decidedly one-sided approach to the narrative's main ideals. It may not always deliver on its fascinating foundation, but you'll never be bored by what it has to say.
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