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'Da Vinci' unlikely to pass Egypt censors

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

CAIRO, Egypt - "The Da Vinci Code," the film based on Dan Brown's best-selling book, will not be seen in Egypt when it is released worldwide Friday.

Nor will the long-awaited film play in Jordan or Lebanon, which banned Arabic translations of the book.

Observers here blame fears that the film's controversial take on Christ's life will fan sectarian tension. The thriller posits the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and their heirs exist today in secret.

Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt are especially strained after two deadly clashes in Alexandria, the country's second largest city.

Youssef Sidhom, editor of a Christian newsweekly, thinks many Egyptians may view the film as "a conspiracy against Christianity." But he opposes banning it, which he expects would provoke more curiosity -- and a greater demand for pirated copies.

"If the movie was green-lighted by the censors, it would be criticized by the Coptic Church," Egyptian film critic Sherif Awad said.

Coptic Christians make up 10 to 15 percent of Egypt's 73 million people.

Moustafa Darwish worked as a film critic and directed government censorship in the 1960s. He recalls "many films (that) had something to do with religion ... were forbidden," although he felt they contained "nothing against public order or morals."

Films showing "the face or voice of a prophet or his disciples" were routinely banned, he says.

Darwish was fired because he allowed movie trailers of Elizabeth Taylor's "Cleopatra" (1963), "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) and "The Taming of the Shrew" (1967) to run in Egyptian theaters. At the time, Taylor was considered a "Zionist agent," he said, laughing.

Religious films are always controversial, and "Da Vinci Code" has stirred debate and criticism from clergymen worldwide.

Jordan's Council of Churches urged the government to ban the film, according to the official Petra news agency. Council secretary-general Hanna Nour said the film tarnishes the memory of Christian and Islamic figures and "contradicts the truth as written in the Bible and the Quran about Jesus."

A 1976 film, "The Message," about the Muslim prophet Muhammad, remains banned in Egypt, according to Darwish. Mustafa Akkad, the film's Syrian producer-director (and executive producer of many of the "Halloween" films), died in a 2005 terrorist attack in Amman, Jordan.

Egypt's censors, a shadowy group, have long been part of filmmakers' and critics' lives.

"In 1954 and '55," Darwish said, "(American director) Cecil B. DeMille came to Egypt for the movie 'The Ten Commandments.' The crossing of the Red Sea, where the Egyptian army drowned and the Israelis crossed -- all that was filmed in Egypt. We gave them our army (to film it)."

But some Egyptians claimed the film was used as Zionist propaganda, playing in New York just days after Israel's invasion of the Egyptian Sinai in 1956.

"So we banned it, and until now it is banned. See• Made in Egypt, and banned in Egypt," he said, shaking his head.

"The Devil's Advocate," starring Al Pacino, played in Cairo theaters briefly in 1997, according to film critic Awad. But Pacino's final climactic speech as the devil was not subtitled in Arabic, and the film was soon banned.

Mel Gibson's controversial "Passion of the Christ" (2004) hit screens here only after Egyptian Christians pressured the film's local distributor to pass it by censors, he said.

Last year's "Kingdom of Heaven," a portrayal of the Crusades and the battle for Jerusalem, played here to favorable reviews.

Darwish explains the lines of reasoning weighing against "Da Vinci" opening in Egypt: "One is that the film will be sent here after the agents are sure it will be approved by the censors. Two, the producers decided not to send it here because the agent advised that it could be banned. ... Basically, it is self-censorship."

Government censorship director Ali Abu Shadi insisted censors have not seen the film, adding: "We cannot ban it if a copy hasn't come to us."

Allied Film Distributors, the film's local agent, removed movie trailers and publicity material from Cairo theaters.

"The company in America has to decide whether we are going to offer it or not because of a 90 percent chance it will be banned," said Allied spokeswoman Nevene Refaat.

Awad thinks "Da Vinci" could earn $350,000 to $520,000 in Egypt, calling that "big money" for a foreign film. Ticket prices here typically range from $1 to $4.

For now, Bahrain, Israel, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are the only Middle Eastern countries scheduled to show "Da Vinci" upon its release.

"The only thing to fear is fear itself," Darwish said, quoting Franklin Roosevelt. "Here in the Middle East, there is more fear than ever."

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