John Hooper

Robert De Niro may have role in planned production

Rome: As portrayed in The Da Vinci Code, Opus Dei has all the warmth of the Holy Inquisition and fewer scruples than Cosa Nostra. The Roman Catholic fellowship's two representatives in Dan Brown's global bestseller and in the film of his book are a high-ranking prelate bent on suppressing the truth about Christianity and his henchman, a homicidal albino monk.

Now one of the world's most controversial spiritual organisations is poised to strike back, using the same media weapons as its critics.

Feature film

A spokesman in Rome said on Friday that Opus Dei was collaborating in the production of a full-length feature film on the life of its founder, Saint Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer. The producers said they were hoping to enlist Antonio Banderas and Robert De Niro for the leading roles.

Opus Dei's spokesman denied a report in the Italian daily La Repubblica, which quoted a source close to the producers as saying Opus Dei had put up "several tens of millions of dollars" in a bid to re-burnish its image.

"Opus Dei is not funding the film, but it would be a consultant to the project," he said.

A spokeswoman for the producers, Lux Vide, said: "For the big parts, we would like De Niro and Banderas. But I say `would like' because there are no contracts yet." The Rome-based Lux Vide has made several big-budget religious films, including a made-for-TV biopic on the late John Paul II starring Jon Voight and Christopher Lee.

Giuseppe Corigliano, head of Opus Dei's information office in Italy, told a press conference: "They had been asking us for at least six or seven years to act as consultants for a film on Saint [Josemaria]. At the beginning, we had doubts because we didn't think it was possible to convey [his] extraordinary personality, his sense of humour and deep faith. We agreed after the Da Vinci Code affair."

Conservative movement

Opus Dei (The Work of God), which claims 85,000 members in 60 countries, is a theologically conservative movement that seeks to integrate religion into daily life. It was much admired by the late Pope who canonised its Spanish founder.

Dan Brown's depiction of Opus Dei is factually inaccurate: the organisation does not, for example, admit monks, though many of its lay members do live in communities. But its secrecy and allegedly cult-like methods and practices have made it a target for criticism long before the publication of The Da Vinci Code.

Opus Dei members were appalled by its portrayal in the book as a murderous global conspiracy. But shortly before the release of the film, its leader, Monsignor Javier Echevarria, claimed Brown had done it more good than harm.

He told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera last May that interest in Opus Dei had soared since the publication of the novel.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

More In: Today's Paper