By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 20, 2006
LONDON, May 19 -- Christians in many countries denounced the movie "The Da Vinci Code" as it opened Friday, complaining that the big-screen adaptation of Dan Brown's best-selling novel distorts history and offends Christians.
" 'The Da Vinci Code' gratuitously insults Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church," said Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Birmingham, England. "It deliberately presents fiction as fact."
Some said they saw parallels with Muslims' reaction to the publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in European newspapers. But in that case, the anger led to weeks of violent demonstrations that left scores of people dead; reaction to the worldwide opening of "The Da Vinci Code," which stars Tom Hanks, has consisted largely of calls for boycotts and denunciations by church leaders and commentators.
"My question to Dan Brown is this: Would he dare to write such a book about Islam?" said Peter Jennings, a spokesman for Nichols. "No, they wouldn't dare. But they view the Catholic Church as a soft touch."
Many Christians are upset by a central theme of the book and film, that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene married and produced a child and that their bloodline continues to the present day. That contention "ridicules and blasphemes" Christian beliefs, Jennings said.
While Brown's book is a work of fiction, Jennings said, the film "muddles fact and fiction, upsetting people who have been Catholics all their lives who now don't know what is true and what is lies."
In the Philippines, which has Asia's largest Christian population, the city council of Manila, the capital, passed a resolution banning the film in local theaters.
Greek authorities banned the film for viewers under 17, saying it touched on "religious and historical questions of major importance that a minor is not able to evaluate." An Athens court rejected a religious organization's petition for an outright ban, citing freedom of expression.
The film's release in India was postponed while government officials considered complaints from the Catholic Bishops' Conference. Bishops across South America have decried the film, and leaders of China's official Catholic church have called for a boycott, although the country's notoriously strict censors allowed the film to be released uncut.
In France, Monsignor Jean-Michel di Falco Leandri, bishop of the Hautes-Alpes region, said he saw the film Friday and found it a "grotesque" portrayal of history and Christian belief. But in an interview, Leandri said he would not call for a boycott because the movie "really isn't worth worrying about -- it's so far-fetched that no one will believe it."
In Russia, where the Orthodox Church has denounced the film as a "dangerous provocation" and warned of a possible violent backlash from Christians, some commentators linked the situation to the Muhammad cartoon protests.
"Representatives from different religions have for the first time united to fight against expressions of modern culture that they find unacceptable," the newspaper Kommersant said in an editorial, expressing "solidarity" with both Christians and Muslims.
The Russian newspaper Izvestia predicted that anger over the film would serve only to boost ticket sales. "Common sense tells us that such a virulent reaction on the part of the church, combined with the studio's own marketing campaign, can only excite the curiosity of the faithful," the newspaper said.
Brown's book and the film portray Opus Dei, a conservative lay Catholic organization, in an extremely negative light. Several Catholic leaders said that was unfair.
But Jack Valero, an Opus Dei spokesman in Britain, was not too concerned. "It's an extraordinarily dull film," he said, "so maybe we shouldn't worry about it too much."
Valero said Opus Dei officials were advising their members not to see the film but had not called for a general boycott or public protests. He said he believed the film's promoters wanted the publicity generated by "angry Christians carrying banners."
"We won't play into their hands. We'll just smile," he said. "We don't want an Oscar for being the nastiest people on Earth but for being the most friendly people on Earth."
Special correspondent Alexandra Topping contributed to this report.