The Da Vinci Code begins with a glimpse of a painting. It is shown for only a moment before the camera shifts to Jacques Saunière and then tracks back to a blurry shot of his pursuer. We see Saunière desperately trying to pull ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ off the wall. His pursuer catches up with him and shoots him from a few metres away. The next day Saunière is found dead, his arms and legs splayed out in imitation of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, and a message in blood scrawled on the floor. Jacques Saunière’s spectacular death sparks off a series of events, which result in Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of Symbology, discovering a worldwide conspiracy. Simply put, the idea is that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife, that the Catholic church knows this, and that it is willing to kill in order to prevent this fact from becoming known.
Unsurprisingly, The Da Vinci Code was critically panned on release and vigorously denounced by religious groups for its historically unverifiable assertions. Yet it made $758 million at the box office and a survey commissioned by the Catholic church suggested that people were twice as likely to believe that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife after viewing it. What exactly was so attractive about this semi-coherent, deliberately controversial thriller? One of our best-developed skills is the ability to recognize patterns then re-arrange them into narratives that fit all the facts together into a common frame. The Da Vinci Code satisfies this narrative fallacy by linking together Da Vinci, the Catholic Church and Mary Magdalene in a conspiracy that stretches across thousands of years.
Even if we don’t believe The Da Vinci Code, it still appeals to this basic impulse to find patterns and construct stories. The theory at the centre of The Da Vinci Code consists of a sequence of non-sequiturs. Its central piece of evidence for Mary Magdalene’s marriage to Jesus is the contention that the figure beside Jesus in Da Vinci’s famous last supper is really Mary Magdalene. Apparently, the use of a word that may mean lover in an obscure apocryphal gospel also supports this theory. The figure isn’t Mary Magdalene and the word is entirely innocent of any sexual connotations. Yet the theory that the Catholic church has been hiding a potentially destructive secret for a thousand years and almost believable at first.
I am reminded of a book that my grandma sent me for Christmas called 1421: The Year China Discovered America. Its argument is roughly as follows. Chinese maps show America. Chinese sailors could have sailed to the New World. Some Chinese sailors sailed very far from China. Therefore, China discovered the Americas. Put like this, it’s very clear that the book is based on a flawed argument. But there’s something very persuasive about the way that the author constructs a complex narrative from a couple of maps.
The Da Vinci Code’s plot is entirely nonsensical and its premise is absurd. But the conspiracy theory at its heart is still oddly exciting and thrilling. The sheer amount of time it takes to explain the theory itself drowns out anything else in the film. There’s no time for character development or meaningful dialogue. Nonetheless, it still exerts an odd, guilty appeal.