While first reviews from the early Cannes press screening suggested disappointment with The Da Vinci Code, civilian audiences will be having a better time than jet-lagged critics. Dan Brown's tome of warring sects, cascading symbols, anagrams, clues, plot twists and turns and endless "reveals" may be more easily digested in print (especially in the short clusters of prose and chapter slivers the author doled out), but even at well over two hours the Da Vinci film grips. Certain filmgoers may lose patience with so much hokum-in which nuggets of historical fact are embedded-and even want to take metaphorical scissors to some of the film's longueurs (that ending, for instance), but ultimately the Tom Hanks/Audrey Tautou starrer is a mystery thriller that entertains.

Robert Langdon (Hanks) is a Harvard professor of symbology giving a lecture in Paris who is set to meet a scholarly colleague, Louvre curator Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle). Sauniere is brutally murdered by albino monk Silas (Paul Bettany) but has time before dying to plant a number of clues. Langdon is summoned to the crime scene by lead French investigator Bezu Fache (Jean Reno); fortunately, Sauniere's granddaughter Sophie (Tatou), a police cryptologist, also arrives to covertly warn Langdon he's in real trouble. Armed with leads deciphered from anagrams, symbols and references to several Louvre Da Vinci paintings, Langdon and Sophie embark on an adventure that will reveal Sauniere's murderer and the vast conspiracy and Very Big Secrets behind the crime.

On the run from the authorities, the pair follow a trail to a secretive Paris bank, where they gain access to the contents of a deposit box (Jürgen Prochnow plays a cagey bank manager), and to the chateau of Langdon colleague Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), a rich and eccentric Oxford-educated Holy Grail expert who can also expound knowingly upon the New Testament's First Family.

The fleeing scholars are also on the run from the Council of Shadows, a pernicious offshoot of conservative Catholic sect Opus Dei headed by fearsome Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina). The Bishop and his crew seek the Holy Grail, which, as author Brown expropriates it, holds the key to the real Jesus Christ and exposes his marriage to Mary Magdalene and begetting of a daughter.

In addition to its provocative historical musings, The Da Vinci Code also has a pro-feminist slant, suggesting that the Church gained and maintained power by masculinizing society and neutralizing the power granted women by paganism. The inverted symbols of the blade and the chalice are key to both the primordial equality of the sexes that the story proposes and to the book and film's ultimate and satisfying resolution. Unfortunately, most of the story's symbols and especially the many anagrams work much better in print, as these need to be savored with the user in control.

The film's major weakness is casting. Hanks is much too bland as Langdon and Tautou, really too young for the role, doesn't convince as a cryptologist. One is left to imagine a Langdon and Sophie as quirky, even prickly eggheads of fierce intelligence and with emotional needs indigenous to most mortals. McKellen's animated eccentric is the film's one source of playfulness, even if the brainy codger isn't all he seems.

With no one disputing that The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction and with Brown's notions so speculative and often fanciful (in spite of his many references to history or what passes as history), it is hard to understand why religious groups are so upset with the material. Are they part of a conspiracy fueling a devilishly clever marketing plan for the film?

But the biggest Da Vinci Code mystery might be just how such an imperfect package can add up to so satisfying a big-screen experience. Yes, the locations are stunning, but there is also that long-winded, hokum- and symbol-filled plot, the endless scholarly and pseudo-scholarly exposition and problem-solving, and the two so-so protagonists spearheading this tortuous intellectual and geographical journey. The answer, dear viewer, may be as simple and obvious as the story's final reveal-i.e., The Da Vinci Code just happens to be a darn good yarn that is hard to mess up.

-Doris Toumarkine