Monday, August 24, 2009

Religious Review of It's A Wonderful Life and The Da Vinci Code by Penelope Kagan

The films It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Da Vinci Code present two contrasting depictions of the Christian religion. While It’s a Wonderful Life highlights the Christian principles of compassion and sacrifice for the greater community, The Da Vinci Code associates corruption and violence with Christianity.

An American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra, holds deeper meaning beyond the fundamental Christmas story façade. Throughout child and adulthood, protagonist George Bailey leads a virtuous life full of selfless acts for his family and the community. To prevent the family business, Building & Loan, from falling into the hands of a greedy, self-serving Mr. Potter, he takes over the business and sacrifices his ambitions to travel the world and attend college. George endures countless financial obstacles and hardships, yet he never succumbs to Mr. Potter’s enticing offers. Despite meager savings and a feeling of inadequacy and longing, he continues to sell homes to the community at discounted prices. On Christmas Eve, however, Bailey finds himself utterly broke and facing dire economic hardship in his business through no account of his own. Consequently, George contemplates suicide, perceiving the cashing out of his life insurance policy to be the only solution to repaying his debt. He is then confronted by his guardian angel, Clarence, who reveals to him what the lives of his family, friends, and community would be like had he never existed. From this divine intervention, George is reaffirmed in the insignificance of materialism and the importance of family and moral behavior.

It’s A Wonderful Life makes highly noticeable Christian references through the personification of heavenly figures, or angels, as well as the promotion of many Christian tenets and practices. The film’s opening scene shows various friends and family members praying to Jesus and the “Good Lord” for the health of George Bailey on Christmas Eve. The scene then changes to a view of the night sky where several constellations, representing heavenly figures, converse informally on who should be sent down to aid George Bailey’s inner turmoil after hearing the prayers.

The film also weaves central Christian beliefs, such as charity for the less fortunate and ‘love thy neighbor’ to demonstrate what truly matters in life. Throughout the film in his dialogue and actions, George prioritizes providing for others in the community before his own personal desires. For example, during a time of economic strife, the town’s members come to George’s business requesting their investments in the company. Since the company itself made no profit by providing homes to all who desired but could not afford, George uses the $2000 meant for his honeymoon to provide each person enough money to get them through the upcoming week, leaving him with only $2. George calling on God for guidance in saying “I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way” during his time of distress, also serves as an indicator of how Christian values influence his decisions (Riccomini 2009). Furthermore, when Clarence illustrates to George the positive impact that he has had on the lives of all the people he knows and the town itself, George truly realizes the importance of Christian charity and personal sacrifice in order to achieve happiness (Sullivan 2005). Especially for younger audiences, It’s a Wonderful Life successfully promotes moral Christian behavior and faith in God. By presenting distinct compassionate and selfless characters like George Bailey against a dishonest, selfish antagonist, the viewer is able to discern the way in which to treat others in order to attain salvation.

The Hollywood version of the fictional book written by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code leads symbologist Robert Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu on an investigation to discover the truth of the Holy Grail through clues left by Sophie’s recently murdered grandfather. Robert and Sophie find themselves consumed in a world of religious corruption, as they uncover the secrets of the Priory of Sion, an ancient secret society, that Sophie’s grandfather gave his life to protect. The film’s antagonist, Silas, is a member of the Opus Dei, a “conservative Catholic secret society” referred to as “God’s mafia” (The Da Vinci Code 2006) which is sanctioned in the movie by corrupt members the Vatican, follows doctrine religiously, and promotes atonement of sins through self-flagellation and the cilice. As the film progresses, the secret that Jesus Christ fathered a daughter with Mary Magdalene, and the royal bloodline of Jesus Christ continues to the present day is hypothesized. The Da Vinci Code reveals that the Holy Grail was in fact, not a cup bearing the blood of Jesus Christ, but was Mary Magdalene herself who carried the child of Jesus Christ. Given that the secret of the Holy Grail reveals Jesus to be mortal, it is a “secret that would devastate the foundations of Christianity” (The Da Vinci Code 2006), and thereby risks the Church’s power on earth.

The Da Vinci Code has caused religious controversy due to its introduction of the theory that the foundation of the church’s beliefs in Jesus’ divinity is entirely inaccurate. It negatively portrays the church in many instances, and shows how the church committed murder, partook in religious wars, and justified their actions by claiming it was God’s will. The film brings to light the violent efforts that were made by the church for thousands of years in order to destroy any evidence of the royal bloodline of Jesus Christ, as seen through the actions of Silas. Silas, who considers himself a “messenger of God”, brutally kills members of the Priory of Sion, the secret society responsible for guarding the secret of the Holy Grail, as well as a nun, all in the name of uncovering the location of the Holy Grail. The film, also for instance, discusses how the church oppressed and killed freethinking women for over three hundred years “in the name of God” since they served as a threat to the church.

In addition, through use of religious paintings by Da Vinci, such as the Last Supper, Sir Leigh Teabing, the Holy Grail enthusiast, creates a convincing argument that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were in fact married and the Holy Grail has always referred to Mary Magdalene’s body as a vessel for carrying the child of Christ. Teabing also uses historical references such as the Council of Nicaea and Constantine to illustrate how Jesus Christ’s divinity was based on a vote, and how he was considered him mortal by many gospels before he was declared as a divine figure by the bible in 325 AD. However, at this time, the viewer also sees Robert, the knowledgeable protagonist in the film, challenge Teabing’s argument, thereby creating some doubt in his argument and offsetting the well developed claim just made. The film juxtaposes the Christian religion and secularism, as seen in the corrupt Opus Dei Christian secret society, and character’s such as Teabing and Sophie who defines God as “some magic in the sky” in which she does not believe.

In the end, Robert does not seem to side with the Christian desire to destroy the Holy Grail, nor Teabing’s desire to reveal the esophagus of Mary Magdalene to the world. It remains undetermined whether the Holy Grail was in fact the esophagus of Mary Magdalene and whether the royal bloodline of Jesus Christ ever existed. Despite the films controversial challenge of the history of the church, in a sense, Robert Langdon appeases protestors of the film by claiming that whether or not Jesus was divine or mortal does not detract from the power of the Christian faith.

Both It’s A Wonderful Life and The Da Vinci Code aim to convey a particular message about the Christian faith. It is by only emphasizing certain components of the faith, and its history, both of the films are able to present conflicting messages and tones relating to Christianity.

Works cited:

It’s A Wonderful Life. Dir. by Frank Capra. Republic Pictures, 1947.

Riccomini, Donald R. (April 2009). Christian Signature and Archetype in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Journal of Religion and Film. Retrieved August 22, 2009 from,

Sullivan, Daniel J. (2005). Sentimental Hogwash? On Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The Catholic University of America. Retrieved August 22, 2009 from,

The Da Vinci Code. Dir. by Ron Howard. Columbia Pictures and Imagine Entertainment, 2006.

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