The Da Vinci Code Mystery Revealed!

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Actors Audrey Tautou and Tom Hanks are shown in a scene from the suspense thriller "The Da Vinci Code", a new film based on Dan Brown's best-selling novel.

Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code brims with mysteries: Did Jesus have a girlfriend? And did they have a daughter, whose descendants live today? Is the Priory of Sion an ancient covenant whose Grand Masters, including Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton, have sworn to protect this royal blood line? Is Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic sect Brown paints in such lurid colors, really that awful? Can a fictional thriller that is nothing more or less than (as one Biblical scholar called it) "a great plane read" be taken seriously as an ecclesiastical exposé? (My short answers: No, no, no, no idea, and no.

But no mystery, at least among film critics, is greater than this one: When are we gonna see the movie?

The Hollywood version of Brown's blockbuster has a solid pedigree: director Ron Howard, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and star Tom Hanks, all Oscar winners. Any movie with that celebrated a roster usually demands early exposure to the upper-middle media: Vanity Fair, perhaps, or one of the major newsmagazines. But not even the undercover nerds at Ain't It Cool News got a peek. (AICN's big scoop, a year or so ago, was that the role of Silas, the murderous albino, might go to ... Jim Carrey! Paul Bettany got it.)

Yet withholding the film was, in its way, clever publicity. Newspapers ran stories about what might be in the film. The Louvre Museum, where the action of the book-film begins, has announced it will be giving tours explaining works of art mentioned therein. 60 Minutes got Ed Bradley to huff and puff about ripping the lid off the Priory of Sion fraud, which was very old news indeed. (I'd read about a month earlier in that hard-hitting compendium of investigative reporting, Fodor's Guide to the Da Vinci Code.) The TV news networks have lavished Scott Peterson-type coverage on the film's imminent release. Last week, producers for Bill O'Reilly's nightly show on Fox asked on two separate days if I'd come on and talk about the Howard film. That I had no hard data or authoritative opinions about a movie I hadn't seen didn't stop the folks in the No Fact Zone.

Sony, the film's distributor, finally previewed it today, when it was simultaneously screened, in New York and at the Cannes Film Festival, three days before its May 19th opening. Critics emerging from the screening at Cannes' Palais des Festivals were cornered by roughly two dozen TV and radio crews, all badgering us to get the fresh Da Vinci dirt. Not since Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 had its world premiere at Cannes two years ago had the reviewers been the story.

By now you've possibly detected my own ploy: to engage in a bit of backtracking mystification and prolong the suspense about the Howard Da Vinci Code. But enough already. What did I think about the movie?

Well, to resolve two mysteries at once (why the film was kept from critics and what my reaction is), it's not very good — long (2hr.32min.) and mostly inert.

The script is doggedly faithful to Brown's plot: Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) is paired with pert police detective Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), and against Silas, the albino hit man from Opus Dei, as they race from Paris and environs to London and environs in the company of crippled scholar Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) to discover the meaning and whereabouts of the Holy Grail, a central artifact in Christian mythology. We eventually learn that, unawares, our hero and heroine have attracted the attention of rival gangs of learned loonies, latest in a millennial line of combatants over the central tenet of Christianity: Was Jesus human or divine?

Howard and Goldsman have efficiently touched all the bases. But they haven't found a way to replicate the book's page-turning urgency. The games Brown plays — anagrams, the Fibonacci sequence, the art-history gamesmanship, the delving into Gnostic gospel lore, all the clues and miscues in his devious treasure hunt — are best savored by readers with a long night or a long flight ahead of them. They're not intrinsically visual or movie-dramatic, however many car chases the Howard version cranks up.

There might be a way to infuse cinematic juice into the tale, and Howard has a couple of jolting images: of Silas whacking a nun, and of the car crash that killed Sophie's parents and brother. He also manages an exemplarily creepy exchange between Tautou and Bettany, which for a moment raises the stakes to the level of personal affront. But these signs of violent life are rare. The flashbacks to the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages (shot in desaturated color) look both expensive and perfunctory — words that sum up the film.

He seems propelled more out of duty than love for the project. He drags along the audience (who, if they read the book, have an emotional investment in the story) as if he were a guide who's led this tour for years and is doing it by rote. For them it might be a passion; for him, it's just a job. Hanks, too, seems to sleepwalk through the part; he gives it the fretful stare that spoke tragic volumes in Philadelphia and Saving Private Ryan but just registers as numb here. The villains fare a bit better. Bettany gets some poignance out of his role as self-flagellator and avenging devil, and Alfred Molina, as an Opus Dei poobah, plays liturgical corruption as if he were an Enron exec in robes. McKellen, a pro's pro, lends suavity and power to the Leigh Teabing role (a character Brown named for two of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail). Yet when he delivers the film's dead-serious climactic line — "You're the last living descendant of Jesus Christ" — it got a derisory laugh from the Cannes crowd.

Just what you'd expect, some would say, from a smug bunch of infidels. Well, despite my cataloguing of the movie's faults, I'm not among the smirkers. In that blizzard of what's-in-the-movie publicity, there was speculation that the filmmakers might shy from the Opus Dei subplot, or at least from naming the group. One wag suggested that, given the character played by the child actor Ronny Howard on The Andy Griffith Show, he might re-dub it Opie Dei. But no, he charged ahead, calling it by name and depicting the society in exactly as harsh a light as the book does. Expect protests.

The movie goes further. Beneath the chases and crashes, the chalices and cilices, it denies Jesus' divinity. As Teabing (perhaps not the most trustworthy authority) says in the movie, "The Greatest Story Ever Told is a lie!" And further still: the film challenges the belligerence that too often adheres to religious believers, the wars and atrocities perpetrated in His name. "Who is God, who is man?" asks Sophie. "How many have been murdered over this question?" I'm not taking sides on that issue. But for a mainstream, $125 million summer movie to raise it, let alone suggest a negative answer, in a cultural environment already politicized and polarized by religious debate, takes big steel balls.

So maybe there's one more Da Vinci Code movie mystery yet to be unraveled. Will the mass movie audience take to a thriller that appears to attack the fundamental beliefs of what, our leaders keep telling us, is an actively Christian country? If Howard's movie marches through that storm, it will become a phenomenon as impressive as the book's gigantic sales: the first secular-humanist hit.

Next: 10 Things We Know About Cannes >>