June 09, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Hollywood is capable of conjuring many different kinds of movie magic. Making Superman fly. Making the Titanic sink. Making Tom Cruise tall. But perhaps its cleverest trick is pulling controversy out of a hat. Inside the marketing spell book that’s been passed down through the ages (or at least since 1915’s Birth of a Nation), you will find incantations that can fan the flames of ratings-board firefights (especially if you have a horror flick like Saw II on the slate) or turn up the heat on a political hot potato. Even half-baked ones. Allow us the following long-overdue correction: The Day After Tomorrow was not ”controversial.”

Yet every now and then, a film comes along that can genuinely get someone’s goat without any studio goosing. Films whose incendiary elements can inspire an offended party to pick up a picket, call for a boycott, even pray for divine intervention. These can be important, progressive, taboo-shattering films — or merely films that feature a lot of randy humping. They can also be films that are truly, objectively despicable. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all reflected in EW’s list of the most controversial movies ever. Their very titles are synonymous with pop outrage: A Clockwork Orange. Caligula. JFK. And at the moment, The Da Vinci Code has Tom Hanks playing a symbologist who learns that encrypted within the paintings of Leonardo is the sacred mother of all cover-ups: that Jesus Christ sired a secret line of descendants with his wife, Mary Magdalene. (FYI: not in the Bible.) Despite mediocre reviews and a big thumbs-down from church leaders, Da Vinci has grossed $583 million worldwide, making it the most successful What Wouldn’t Jesus Do movie of all time.

Of course, the holy rolling over Ron Howard’s blockbuster was preordained, as it was adapted from Dan Brown’s already controversial 2003 novel. Christian alarm over Da Vinci‘s pastiche of historical fact, innuendo, and conspiracy theory has inspired a cottage industry of books refuting Brown’s pseudo-scholarly fiction. Da Vinci‘s sacrilegious story, whether in words or graven images, has not only been blasted by Catholic and Protestant groups, but also banned in mostly Muslim Pakistan and parts of Hindu-dominated India, proving that offensive cartoons really can transcend cultural boundaries. The minute Howard and company announced their intention to produce a faithful adaptation — which included Brown’s sensationalistic characterization of the Catholic lay organization Opus Dei — their movie was on a collision course with a storm cloud of free publicity. Columbia’s marketing was understated if coy, yet the studio did court charges of bluster-baiting when it created a popular website that cultivated debate about Da Vinci among Christian pundits. As the big bad book says, So dark the con of man.

I’m a sucker for it, all the same. Consider me the optimal test subject for a study on why controversy sells. Nothing can entice me into a movie theater more. Why? Curiosity, naturally. A desire to be ”culturally relevant.” There’s definitely some self-righteous indignation involved as well. When the moral watchdogs started barking about Kids, I pulled out my credit card and called Mr. Moviefone. And whenever I hear a director say something like ”If you don’t want to be offended, then don’t go,” I totally want to go, even at the risk of falling prey to the chilling suggestion that you surrender your right to outrage once you purchase a ticket. Did I really like Natural Born Killers — or did I feel obligated to not dislike it because I’d drunk the Oliver Stone/free speech Kool-Aid? I wonder.

As for prurient interest, I plead guilty, too. I’m not a Deep Throat kind of guy — never saw it, never will. But I did see Basic Instinct. Twice.

Complicating all of this is the fact that I also happen to be a Christian. I never got around to burning my naughty Prince records when I gave my soul to Jesus, but I’m a believer nonetheless. My more permissive tolerance for pop culture has put me at awkward odds with my religious peers. I remember feeling like a traitor — and angry for being made to feel so — when I crossed the picket line to give The Last Temptation of Christ the fair hearing I haughtily insisted that it deserved from me. It remains the defining moviegoing experience of my life. As the lights dimmed, I felt almost endangered by what I was about to see, as if the film had the power to change me. I still can see the glowing EXIT sign, offering me escape I didn’t take. I was deeply moved by Martin Scorsese’s film. I was also only 18 and still trying to figure out who I was. As with Natural Born Killers, hostile conditions combined with my own immaturity surely must have hindered the process of making a sound judgment. But it was Temptation that whetted my appetite for more urgency, more risks, more soul in my movies.

And so, like a moth to the flame, I was there on opening day for The Da Vinci Code. However, I did have a permission slip of sorts from my church, which had asked me to help lead a discussion about the movie the following Sunday. The request is indicative of a growing trend toward cultural engagement taking place in the Christian community, though it’s only gradually taking hold: There were about 25 protesters outside my theater, each holding signs that read: ”I believe in Jesus — I reject The Da Vinci Code.” Presumably, they had done the honorable thing and had read the novel. Many Christians have, actually, either because they were drawn to the notoriety, or they’re among those weird sickos who like to read books.

But the thing that shocked me the most about Howard’s film was how it wasn’t shocking at all. It didn’t even possess the same What-if-Jesus-isn’t-divine? scare of Brown’s book. Robert Langdon had been converted from a brazen heresy peddler into a spiritually woozy defender of Christendom — played by the most trusted star in the world, no less. Moreover, the notorious scene in which Sir Leigh Teabing unpacks the Jesus/Magdalene sandal-knocking blasphemy has been profoundly transfigured. Instead of a lecture that goes unquestioned by Langdon, Howard presents a rancorous debate, with Hanks throwing incredulity and skepticism at Ian McKellen’s winky Teabing at almost every turn. The filmmakers claim they wanted to add drama to an otherwise flat sequence. Okay. But the effect is the same: In tone and content, Brown’s ballsy story has been neutered. Driving past those silly protesters with their silly signs on the way home, I realized they represented the two things Howard’s film needed: the courage of its convictions — and some convictions.

Some randy humping might have helped too.

The Da Vinci Code ranks 13th on EW’s list of the 25 most controversial films. Collectively, they are many things. Outrageous. Deplorable. Challenging. And even deeply rewarding. We declined to include inside-baseball controversies like Citizen Kane, or controversies that raged mostly among critics, like Blue Velvet. Instead, we focused on films that remind us that movies are a social experience, and that they have the power to shake, rattle, and roil the world.

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