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Another grail quest, in codes and ciphers


Like the book it is based on, The Da Vinci Code opens with a sequence showing the curator of the Louvre running through the museum, pursued by an albino assassin in a monk's robe. As absurd as it sounds, that sequence, intercut with another of Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) lecturing an attentive audience on the ambiguity of symbols, nicely epitomizes the subject, themes, and the spirit of both novel and film. The professor's slides suggest the sort of bogus learning that propels both works, while the curator's desperate flight, watched by figures in the pictures on the walls, nicely captures their curious relationship with great art.

For the book's millions of readers, the movie should prove moderately satisfying, since it adapts the essence of the plot and most of the specious history that provide the novel's appeal. It also proceeds with the same quality of confident absurdity that convinced many of those readers of the book's argument --- that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and founded a bloodline that, continuing through the present day, in effect constitutes the real Holy Grail. It assembles an abundance of questionable evidence by skimming through a variety of sources --- paintings, documents, rumor, legend, a whole junk shop of pseudo-history --- that encumbers the action and overwhelms the characters.

To solve the murder of the curator, the French police enlist Langdon, a Harvard professor of symbology (a new department?) and their own cryptologist, Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), to interpret the constellation of clues the victim created before his demise. Although mortally wounded, the curator stripped naked in order to inscribe a mystical symbol on his chest, then wrote a number of cryptic messages in his own blood. The messages, which proliferate throughout the movie, depend upon all sorts of arcane knowledge, along with the ability to analyze codes, ciphers, anagrams, puns, riddles, and poems.

As they begin solving the first of the many puzzles, Sophie and Langdon soon find themselves threatened by a complicated series of interlocking conspiracies. Both the police and that sinister albino pursue the couple; fleeing both menaces, they also hunt down the answers to the clues the curator concocted. During the progress of their flight, which takes them to the French countryside, then to London, the plot pauses while they deliver pedantic little lectures to each other on the real subject, the identity of the Holy Grail.

Like the book, the movie instructs us in the history of the Knights Templar, the Christian Church, the Catholic organization Opus Dei, a secret society called the Priory of Sion, and throws in references to the Freemasons and possibly even the Kiwanis Club. It also spends a good deal of time on Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper, which "proves" that Mary Magdalene, not John, sits at the right hand of Jesus and that the couple married. (Both works somehow imply that the Renaissance painting is some kind of photographic record of the event.)

The frequent pauses for analysis, instruction, and cryptography interrupt the swift pace of the surface action, which includes the familiar movie chase through city streets and the relentless pursuit of the large pale monk. The movie lavishes great care on the various locations, particularly the Louvre, Paris at night, several ancient churches, and the European countryside. Perhaps those stunning backgrounds diminish the personalities of the major actors, but whatever the cause, neither Audrey Tautou nor Tom Hanks accomplishes much more than occupying their proper spaces in the film; Hanks in particular sleepwalks through the action, displaying virtually no change of expression or inflection.

Finally, despite all the controversy, because of its general clumsiness and utterly preposterous premises, The Da Vinci Code hardly threatens anyone's faith. The conspiracy theories, the pedantry, and the pseudo-historical mumbo jumbo in both book and film add up to a farrago of sanctified nonsense. To believe that a dying man would compose elaborate conundrums to identify his murderer, that an ancient European code device would be conveniently written in English, or that Leonardo told the truth about the Holy Grail in his famous painting requires a greater leap of faith and a greater denial of reason than anything in Christianity.

The Da Vinci Code (PG-13), directed by Ron Howard, is playing at Culver Ridge 16, Pittsford Cinemas, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13.