Holy Blood, Holy Vodka Bottle05/08/2008
By Heidi Martinuzzi
Ever since Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code turned the New Testament into a source of endless tabloid headlines, we're used to this sort of thing, so you probably won't be surprised when I give you the what-ifs from the Bruce Burgess documentary Bloodline, opening Friday:
What if Mary Magdalene wasn't a prostitute who followed Jesus around like an abused puppy (her reputation in popular tradition), but was actually his wife and closest confidant?
Okay, we've heard that one before, but . . .
What if Mary Magdalene took Jesus' body from the tomb and made it look like he was resurrected?
What if this sneaky woman then sailed to France and lived there among a Jewish colony and raised her children (the ones Jesus fathered) and was eventually buried there?
Blasphemous enough for you? There's more:
What if Jesus not only married Mary Magdalene, failed to die on the cross (much less be resurrected), and was buried somewhere in France himself?
What if Mary took the Holy Grail with her to France, bore sacred children who later married Merovingian kings, gave them the Spear of Destiny that would be worshipped by the Knights Templar, which turned out to be only part of the occult objects that were destined to be revered by … uh … something about the First Crusade … and …
I knew I couldn't remember it all. I honestly forget the rest. There are only so many legends and rumors you can deal with in a single movie before you kind of lose the thread. Fortunately they invited me to Press Day so I could ask the filmmakers directly: What are you trying to do here other than rehash Holy Blood, Holy Grail the same way Dan Brown did?
“We set out on the back of Dan Brown," director Bruce Burgess admits. "The premise of ‘Bloodline’ and this whole film, yes, it’s kind of out there. You have to go into these things with an open mind.”
Right. Now I feel better.
The one thing that can’t be refuted--and kind of the "secret sauce" of this movie--is that Burgess, his producer Rene Barnett, and his English adventurer pal Ben Hammott have indeed discovered someone in a tomb in the Rennes-Le-Chateau area of southwestern France, an area rife with myths and shrines dedicated to Mary Magdalene. DNA tests on hair confirm that this person is of Semitic ancestry, and the person appears to have been buried in a Templar cloak with a big red cross on a white background.
Who is this? If you believe Burgess and Hammott, it is Mary Magdalene, who arrived in France after fleeing the Holy Land immediately after the crucifixion. If you don’t believe them, then it’s either a hoax or some poor disturbed corpse of unknown origin. Bloodline follows a three-year investigation in Rennes-Le Chateau and the actual amateur excavation that Hammott undertook to find the clues he needed for a race against time to oppose the forces of the Catholic Church--oh, wait, sorry, that’s The Da Vinci Code--what I meant to say was that Hammott followed a series of clues left by a 19th-century priest, Berenger Sauniere, at Rennes-le-Chateau, supposedly leading to the tomb of Mary Magdalene.
In the film Burgess follows Hammott’s entire treasure hunt step by step and details how Hammott discovered each clue hidden in a recess in the Church of the Magdalene (Sauniere’s old haunt), using a secret map coded on old parchment. The film occasionally wanders away from Hammott to show us clandestine meetings with supposed members of the Priory of Sion, the secret medieval organization linked to the Masons, the Templars and the Catholic Church that supposedly knows everything Burgess is trying to uncover.
Narrated by Burgess himself, the film travels via grainy videocam footage from classy cafes in London to the Bibliotheque in France to small rustic villages in the south of France to hear interviews with members of the Priory of Sion ( a secret society that protects, well, "the secret") who demand that their voices be changed and their faces blurred on camera. Mixed in with those guys are authors who have written follow-up books to Holy Blood Holy Grail, sitting in their back-lit offices behind lots of important-looking books. Interviewees all agree emphatically that there is some kind of conspiracy in the Vatican to cover up a secret that, when discovered, will shake the very foundations of Western Civilization. And probably make a great movie.
The only person who agreed to be interviewed on camera, representing the Priory of Sion, is one Nick Haywood, supposedly the adopted son of an English Lord, definitely a 33rd-level Freemason and reputedly a high-ranking Sion member. Haywood spends considerable time leading Burgess to clues about the secrets hidden in Rennes-le-Chateau and being vague in a charming "Bond villain" kind of way. Considering the insane security these "secrets" seems to be under, why would Nick Haywood agree to meet with Burgess and to even allude to the fact that he is on the right track with his discovery?
“We gave him the time to talk,” explained Burgess when asked about this during press day. “There are an awful lot of journalists and filmmakers who would have dismissed him out of hand, because they would have asked him to categorically prove that he was in the Priory of Sion. The reason I gave him the space to talk and the reason he is in this film, and it is a decision we went back and forth on for weeks and months, you know, how do we know this guy is who he says he is? And we just had to satisfy ourselves that he was who he said he was--we did the best we could. It is the kind of filmmaking I have done. I tend to give people the space to tell their story, and others tend not to. He came across to us every time we met him as pretty understated and credible. This didn’t seem to us to be someone playing at being in a secret society.”
In other words, he wasn't vetted at all, but he seemed like an honest guy. I feel so much better. What's ironic is that Burgess himself admits that many people have been duped before now when it comes to investigating this particular mystery.
“Pierre Planchard, he was a Frenchman who actually talked to the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail back in the late seventies and he claimed to be the Grand Master," said Burgess. "CBS did a big expose on him as an imposter and none of it was true and he planted the Paris documents.”
So why is Nick Haywood different? The filmmakers were asked this question in several different ways, and all their answers amount to a shrug of the shoulders.
Also of note are several interviews with authors of books on the region and the Mary Magdalene mythos itself. One glaring omission? Any type of academic or officially recognized authority on the subject of Biblical history, or even medieval French history. The only academic who appears in the movie, in a limited role, is one Dr. Gabriel Barkay from Jerusalem's Bar Ilan University, who analyzes the contents of a first-century chest found among Hammott’s search for treasure in the French hills. Barkay confirms Hammott's finds as genuinely first-century B.C. and coming from the Middle East. But this strange exclusion of professional and recognized experts is suspicious at best, and begs the question as to why Burgess wouldn’t want academic opinions validating his theories. Could it have something to do with his referring to them as “stuffy academics who give me grief every single day” during the interview?
Burgess has other credibility problems as well. The self-admitted “monster-hunting crazy man” has already made documentaries about Sci-Fi Channel staples like Bigfoot, Area 51, and The Bermuda Triangle. Once a conspiracy theorist …
That's why most of what Hammott and Burgess have to sell here is the one solid thing they found that can't be explained away--a corpse. And they're sheepish even about that.
“We had a lot of criticism for this so-called ‘amateur archeology’, which we absolutely admit it is,” says Burgess. “At what point do you stop and hand it over to the authorities? We had to find out at least if there was a corpse under the shroud, at the very least we had to lift that shroud, which was very difficult because you’re working blind, but we certainly didn’t want to take anything out of the tomb unless it had already fallen off the corpse. We didn’t disturb anything else. The next step, which everyone is really excited about, is to do a full-scale forensic analysis, which will give us details, and at that point we can start looking at teeth and everything else. Once we pulled back the shroud and saw that there was someone there, we decided that was as far as we were going to go.”
I didn't quite follow the reference to Mary Magdalene's teeth--I doubt her dental records are available--but the bigger problem is that the body is not in plain sight. It is well hidden in a cave and the only way to see in or out is through a “long zigzag hole” through which Burgess and Hammott filmed by placing their camera on a large pole and pushing in. The true "entrance" was blocked off by whoever placed the corpse there and cannot be accessed because it appears to be far underground.
In other words, it’s hard to believe, from what they show in the film, that it’s a real undisturbed archeological find. In the words of the filmmaker himself, at first site of the tomb and what it contains, “It’s too perfect, like a film set.”
“I am not vouching for Nick," says Burgess. "I am not even vouching for Ben. At first I thought ‘This guy’s full of shit, what does he mean there’s a temple and a tomb? This is ridiculous.’ But when I spent time with him, and I saw his emotions and how he was reacting (I was looking for a ‘tell,’ as they say in poker) every hour of every day, he never did give me one, and he never has. I knew we set ourselves up academically for a fall. I remember someone saying, ‘Well, how can you take this guy seriously, he’s got an empty vodka bottle next to his bed?’ But what the hell does that matter, whether there’s an empty vodka bottle? I can shoot this like the History Channel and put a bloody library of books behind him, does that help it a little more?”
If you’re still not convinced that Burgess and Hammott are the types, vodka bottles and all, to find something like this, Burgess can take it one step further.
“The Nag Hammadi text, Dead Sea Scrolls, and King Tut’s tomb, these are three examples of some of the greatest finds in modern history that weren’t found by the British Museum, that weren’t found by UCLA. They were found by workmen and regular Joes who were then pushed out of the way while the blokes with suits come on. That’s how tombs are found. They are found by people like me and Ben who are covered in spiders and bat shit and then all the academics come in, and that is the next step.”
Despite adamant denials by Burgess and Barnett, though, Bloodline does make accusations and does imply very heavily that the Catholic Church is to blame for a cover-up and even knows about the "big reveal" (the body), for which they use Burgess as their emissary. The film seems to claim, mostly through interviews with Nick Haywood, that the mysterious members of the Priory of Sion are actually high-ranking members in today's Catholic Church. These secrets have been hidden for generations, but now the public has been deemed "ready" to hear them. The implication, then, is that the Pope chose Burgess and Barnett to be his conduits for the big news. They won't quite cop to this claim in person, although they imply it in the film itself. According to Barnett, they had no agenda and the film does not attempt to draw conclusions.
“What we really set out to do with this film was to add to the conversation and spark the conversation, not necessarily to change anyone’s minds,” he says. “We just wanted to lay out what we found. We didn’t have an ax to grind going in, we didn’t have something to prove, we didn’t go in with preconceived ideas, we didn’t want to prove this or that, we just wanted to prove whatever we could and let the chips fall where they may. And I think that’s what he Nick Haywood meant, he kept saying our ‘intention’ was correct.”
“As ever, in this mystery, you can pick your evidence and choose which way you want to go because it is all very inconclusive,” says Burgess, defending himself. “I wasn’t trying to do a Michael Moore, I was trying to just put stuff out there and let the film do it, which is hard.”
Whether Bruce Burgess is a charlatan or just a very lucky man, it seems that there is a body buried under that shroud in France, and the filmmakers are suggesting that it's a body that could potentially have some serious implications for Catholicism and for Christianity in general. Implications such as: Jesus was not divine and did not resurrect; Jesus had children, and has descendants that are alive today; Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus and one of his apostles; Jesus is buried in France … the list could go on. Since the excavations of the tomb will be underway "soon" (no date has yet been set) we can expect a formal announcement from the Catholic Church--or maybe not!
I’d like to believe that Burgess and Hammott did find something beautiful and explainable in that tomb--they seem like nice enough guys--but two things bother me about their story:
1) Despite numerous references in the film to people being threatened or hurt or killed to keep the secret of Rennes-le-Chateau, Burgess and Barnett seem very much alive and not at all scared to be going public with their movie. While they claim to have received “threats,” they won’t go into specifics and can’t explain why they have been spared the wrath of the secret societies that other treasure-hunters and scholars have felt. They allude to Nick Haywood having "chosen" them for this mission, but it’s not a very convincing argument, since they haven't proven that Haywood himself is who he says he is. And after meeting these guys--hand-to-mouth documentary filmmakers who seem focused on the quick buck (ahem, Bigfoot?)--I think Haywood might have chosen someone a little more reliable and likely to be trusted by the public. So, good one, Haywood!
2): Indiana Jones is coming out May 22, the same week as Bloodline. Kudos to the Marketing Department! Bloodline was actually scheduled for release the same month as The Da Vinci Code, but wasn’t ready on time. Cha-Ching! Isn’t it slightly classless of the Priory of Sion to take such a back seat to their Big Reveal and allow Hollywood to dictate the release schedule? I mean, won’t the film end up looking like a big grab for cash instead of the truthful revelation Burgess and Hammott are hoping that it is?
Despite all the red flags, there's something about this story that won't go away. Why do so many people want to believe that the mortal remains of Mary Magdalene lie in a cave in France? Why the focus on her and not, for example, on Peter, whose remains probably do lie in a cave tomb underneath St. Peter's Basilica but could conceivably generate just as many conspiracy theories if you were to study the autopsies of the corpse and the carbon-dating of the site? All the books and documentaries and websites that have grown up around Rennes-le-Chateau and the Priory of Sion must represent some yearning in the heart of a certain type of person. Someone who wants to hear that Jesus loved a woman and loved his family. Someone who finds the resurrection to be a stumbling block and is comforted by the idea that Jesus was buried by his wife and children. Someone who wants a "less divine" Jesus, a more accessible savior. Movies like Bloodline, in this sense, are a strange kind of hope for a Christ who's not so scary, who's more like us. Martin Scorsese explored this very emotion in The Last Temptation of Christ. Bringing Jesus down off the cross is something that, oddly enough, many would regard as good news.
In true Hollywood fashion, Burgess and Barnett will be filming the excavation of the tomb, so the Priory of Sion is presumably working overtime to make certain that, in Part II, the Vatican reveals a little more of the ancient hidden saga. This time I hope they get a better entertainment lawyer, though, because it might be time to cite "creative differences" with Burgess and Hammott and look for fresh talent. I hear Oliver Stone is available.