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From Hollywood, a Prayer in 'Code'

Audrey Tautou and Tom Hanks in
Audrey Tautou and Tom Hanks in "The Da Vinci Code." (Sony Pictures Via Associated Press)

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, May 19, 2006

Ron Howard, the director of "The Da Vinci Code," had some advice for a troubled, apprehensive world earlier this week, which he transmitted via the brave reporters and critics doing hardship duty on the Cote d'Azur at the Cannes Film Festival.

"There's no question that the film is likely to be upsetting to some people," warned Howard, whom readers of a certain age once knew as "Opie," back when he had hair. "My advice, since virtually no one has really seen the movie yet, is to not go see the movie if you think you're going to be upset. Wait. Talk to somebody who has seen it. Discuss it. And then arrive at an opinion about the movie itself."

Maybe it's just me, but that sounds like wishful thinking. Perhaps with the slightest hint of desperation.

When a Hollywood director tells people not to drop everything and rush immediately to the cineplex to see his new movie, which was calculated and engineered to become one of the great blockbusters of all time, there are only two possibilities: Either he's so confident of the opening-weekend box office that he can afford an air of Gallic insouciance; or he's so worried that he'll do anything he can to get fannies into seats, including pretend to take seriously a "controversy" he had previously dismissed.

As everyone in Christendom surely knows by now, the film is based on the mega-selling novel by Dan Brown that posits a vast conspiracy, spanning continents and centuries, to hide certain explosive truths about the life of Jesus. The writing is so clunky that one suspects Brown pounded away at the keyboard with his elbows, but the plot is quite clever, and the author seals the deal by claiming his fiction is supported by historical fact.

As one would expect, church leaders have denounced the central conceit -- that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and produced a family line that continues to this day. And as one would expect, there have been calls for boycotts and demonstrations.

But the complaints haven't reached the level of true outrage, and I think that's because most believers have concluded that "The Da Vinci Code" doesn't rise to the level of blasphemy. It just presents an engaging "what if?" and an entertaining sequence of puzzles for the reader to try to work out. I have the greatest respect for beach-chair literature, but that's what the book is. Theology it ain't.

There's a problem, though, when you make a movie of a book that so many people have read: Much of your potential audience already knows all the twists and turns, knows the answers to all the puzzles, and knows how the story ends. A classic such as "The Lord of the Rings" -- or the Bible, in the case of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" -- has other attributes on which a filmmaker can draw: character, philosophy, language, meaning. Dan Brown's book has plot, more plot and some additional plot on top of that, but not much more. It hasn't challenged the foundations of Christianity, and neither will Ron Howard's movie.

Until now Howard has basically shrugged off the idea of a controversy, politely dismissing demands that the film be preceded by a disclaimer noting that it is a work of fiction. But at Cannes, when he and cast members were assaulted with predictable questions about whether the film would be offensive to Christians, these seasoned professionals seemed oddly inept at calming the waters.

Ian McKellen, the great character actor who reportedly steals the movie from star Tom Hanks, vigorously fanned what flames he could find: "Well, I've often thought the Bible should have a disclaimer in the front saying this is fiction," he told the "Today" show's Matt Lauer, who has been reporting from Europe on the movie's opening. "I mean, walking on water, it takes an act of faith. And I have faith in this movie. Not that it's true, not that it's factual, but that it's a jolly good story."

McKellen, like Howard, encouraged audience members to "discuss the thing after they've seen it." And that -- perhaps disappointingly, to many -- is the true Holy Grail of "The Da Vinci Code": The denizens of evil Hollywood aren't out to destroy Christian faith, they're out to sell a movie. You don't have to love their film. You can despise it if you like. They just want you to please pay your money and go see it.

But the reviews from the cranky critics at Cannes were decidedly lukewarm, the consensus being that the film moves like a glacier. Which is enough to send a few Hollywood executives to their knees in prayer.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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