'Da Vinci' Ignites Global Passion

American actor Tom Hanks, star of the new movie "The Da Vinci Code," poses for photographers as he arrives with fellow cast members at the train station in Cannes, southern France, on Tuesday, May 16, 2006. "The Da Vinci Code" will open the 59th International film festival on Wednesday night. (AP Photo/Francois Mori) AP Photo/Francois Mori

The year's most anticipated movie, "The Da Vinci Code," an adaptation of the monster best-selling thriller that stems from a cover-up of secrets about Christianity's roots, is stirring up passions.

While readers worldwide devoured Dan Brown's novel, reaction from Cannes critics ranged from mild endorsement of its potboiler suspense to groans of ridicule over its heavy melodrama to protests over its Christian theme.

But director Ron Howard says if you think it will bother you, don't go see "The Da Vinci Code." While Howard agrees that the movie, like the novel, "is likely to be upsetting to some people," he insists his movie is "supposed to be entertainment" and "not theology."

Howard says critics should wait and talk to people who've seen the movie, then come to a decision independently.

When the cast was asked if they believe Christ was married, Tom Hanks quipped, "Well, I wasn't around."

The movie drew lukewarm praise, shrugs of indifference, some jeering laughter and a few derisive jabs Tuesday from arguably the world's toughest movie crowd: critics at the Cannes Film Festival.

"It's a movie about whether the greatest story ever told is true or not, and it's not the greatest movie ever screened, is it?" said Baz Bamigboye, a film columnist for London's Daily Mail. "As a thriller, well," he continued, shrugging.

"Maybe the next day I'll forget about it," said Igor Soukmanov of Unistar Radio in Belarus. "But today for two hours it was good entertainment. ... As a Hollywood movie, it's a very nice picture."

Critics got their first look at "The Da Vinci Code" a day before its world premiere at Cannes on Wednesday, when it also debuts at theaters in France and some other countries. The film opens worldwide over the following two days, including the United States on Friday. A gala in Beijing will show the movie an hour before its "official worldwide premier" in Cannes.

In London, the apparently unstoppable train of publicity took the form of an actual train here as the movie's stars and notables headed for a trip to the Cannes film festival for Wednesday's opening, CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reports.

The movie is directed by Howard and stars Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou as strangers hurled together on a frantic quest for the Holy Grail after a series of murders is committed.

The filmmakers add some twists and variations here and there, but the general thrust of the novel remains intact, including its theory that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child. Variety calls is a "subversively revisionist view of Jesus Christ's life."

The movie has prompted denouncements from many Christians.

"It's a bit as if someone were to write a novel about your family in which all your brothers and sisters are criminals and says, 'Oh, it's just fiction,'" Father John Wauk of Opus Dei University of Santa Croce, Rome told CBS News. "It is just fiction, but it is offensive anyway."

The Cannes audience clearly grew restless as the movie dragged on to 2 1/2 hours and spun a long sequence of anticlimactic revelations.

"I kept thinking of the Energizer Bunny, because it kept going and going and going, and not in a good way," said James Rocchi, a film critic for CBS 5 in San Francisco and the online outlet Cinematical. "Ron Howard makes handsome films. He doesn't make bad ones, but he doesn't make great ones."

Todd McCarthy, a critic for Variety, agreed. "Sitting through all the verbose explanations and speculations about symbols, codes, secret cults, religious history and covert messages in art, it is impossible to believe that, had the novel never existed, such a script would ever have been considered by a Hollywood studio," McCarthy wrote.

One especially melodramatic line uttered by Hanks drew prolonged laughter and some catcalls, and the audience continued to titter for much of the rest of the film.

Some people walked out during the movie's closing minutes, though there were fewer departures than many Cannes movies provoke among harsh critics. When the credits rolled, there were a few whistles and hisses, and there was none of the scattered applause even bad movies sometimes receive at Cannes.

However, critics singled out co-star Ian McKellen, playing a wry Grail enthusiast who joins the search, as the movie's highlight, injecting hearty humor and delivering the most nuanced performance. "McKellen seems to relish every moment and line," McCarthy wrote. Paul Bettany added a seething mix of tragic pathos and destructive zealousness as a monk assassin who carries out the slayings.

Bamigboye said all the actors were solid, but enthusiastically added, "I've got to tell you, Ian McKellen steals it. He slices all the crap away."

And one New York critic praises the movie for not asking moviegoers to "check your brain at the popcorn counter."

"The Da Vinci Code" is far more interested in being a rare summer movie that you won't forget an hour after leaving the theater than questioning the basis of anybody's religious faith," Lou Lumenick writes in the New York Post.

Nevertheless, the anticipated protests have already begun in places like India, the Philippines, Thailand and China, Phillips reports, where the Christian populations have been trying to get the movie banned or boycotted, or to carry health warnings that the story is only fiction.

Christians in Asia are particularly worried about the movie because they believe it could threaten a religion that is already a minority in many countries. "I think we should do everything not to allow it to be shown," Eduardo Ermita, the Philippines' Executive Secretary, tells CBS News. "As a Catholic, it is blasphemous."

"If Jesus Christ had a child and a wife, then Christianity would be destroyed," said Thongchai Pradabchananurat, of the Thailand Protestant Churches Coordinating Committee.

Also Wednesday, Opus Dei, portrayed as a murderous cult in "The Da Vinci Code," stepped up its effort to turn the negative hype surrounding the best seller-turned-movie into a teaching moment about the conservative Roman Catholic group.

The book asserts that Opus Dei is involved in covering up the theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child. As part of its media blitz to counter the theory, Opus Dei hosted a daylong media visit Wednesday to a vocational school it runs in a working-class neighborhood of the Italian capital to show off its work helping train young people to be mechanics, electricians and chefs.

Opus Dei's message is that a lot of good has actually come out of the film, because it has generated interest in Christianity and given the church an opportunity to teach the truth about the faith and Opus Dei's mission, which is to show that everyday work is an opportunity to grow spiritually closer to Jesus.

The film's lukewarm reception among critics at the Cannes Film Festival also brought some smiles to Opus Dei members, who cited the fact that laughter rippled through the screening room during a melodramatic climax of the film.

"The laughter explains everything," said Michele Crudele, director of the Opus Dei-run Centro Elis vocational school.
  • Gina Pace

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