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Da Vinci De-Coder

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The theological conspiracy theories posited by author Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code are anathema to Nancy Nahra. But she can't seem to shake the topic. While on vacation in Paris last summer, the Champlain College English professor spotted a set for the movie version then shooting at the Louvre. By coincidence, in the fall the Vermont Humanities Council asked Nahra, who also chairs her college's humanities department, to talk about the novel at libraries around the state.

"God knows, there are better books," she says of her initial reaction to public forums on what she describes as a "fourth-rate" bestseller. But Nahra has turned the hype surrounding the Da Vinci phenomenon into her own potential publishing opportunity.

The big-screen adaptation of The Da Vinci Code -- opening nationwide this weekend -- delves into ancient secrets about Jesus and Mary Magdalene that contradict the Bible. The chief protagonist is a Harvard scholar (Tom Hanks) who discovers clues embedded in Renaissance masterpieces such as "The Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper." He's pursued by villains, including a spooky albino monk associated with the controversial Catholic sect called Opus Dei.

Some 60 million copies have been sold since Code came out in March 2003. Fans flock to tours of the genuine historic sites mentioned on its pages.

"The book is fiction, but, for some reason, people find it difficult to accept that," notes Nahra. "They make up their own menu of parts they want to believe. There's an illusion that you're learning true things."

She is keen to unearth Dan Brown's errors. "At one talk I gave, a man came up to me and said, 'I'm an expert on listening devices,'" Nahra recalls. "Apparently, the listening devices described in scenes at the Louvre wouldn't work because the museum's walls are too thick."

This revelation contributes to Nahra's sense that, in terms of make-believe, The Da Vinci Code is akin to James Bond spy thrillers.

A few weeks ago, she visited an alleged center of religious espionage: Opus Dei's American headquarters in New York City. "They're ordinary- looking people, not monks," Nahra explains. "It hurts them that the public thinks they carry out assassinations."

Nahra's own work-in-progress, The Da Vinci Code Grounded, will explore the blurring of fact and fancy in literature. She will discuss her views Thursday night on Vermont Public Radio's "Switchboard" show, and at future library chats. "After the film comes out," Nahra says, "I suspect there'll be even more interest in this subject."

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We Yanks really love cinema about ordinary British blokes overcoming adversity with pluck. The Full Monty, a 1996 pioneer in this crowd-pleasing UK genre, focuses on laid-off Yorkshire mill laborers who raise money with a male striptease act.

Director Julian Jarrold's Kinky Boots, arriving a week from Friday at the Palace 9 in South Burlington, traces a similar arc. Employees of a failing English shoe factory in Northampton launch the company's revolutionary new products at a prestigious Milan fashion show, with sassy drag queens as their runway models.

The saga begins when Charlie (Joel Edgerton, a Conan O'Brien look-alike) reluctantly inherits Price & Sons, a family business manufacturing traditional men's oxfords, which are now marginalized by cheaper Third World goods.

The firm's prospects seem bleak until Charlie meets Lola (the talented Chiwetel Ejiofor of Dirty Pretty Things and Inside Man), a cross-dressing London cabaret singer whose birth name is Simon. Turns out Lola represents a demographic unable to find attractive boots -- preferably thigh-high, red patent leather -- with stiletto heels that can support a big boy's weight.

Before you can say "the full booty," the straight guy joins forces with the presumably gay guy. As in many gender-bending pictures, the non-hetero character is celebrated but denied an actual sex life. Charlie's romantic ties are another matter. He slowly distances himself from a disapproving fiancée in favor of a sweet factory girl (Sarah-Jane Potts) who encourages his dream of footwear success.

Lola ditches the chanteuse gig and tries to save the day at Price & Sons, in the conservative Midlands, by designing flamboyant boots. Don (Nick Frost), one of the just-plain folks on the assembly line, is homophobic. He soon gets his comeuppance.

Since Kinky is feel-good entertainment, most problems are happily resolved by the time Lola and several other female impersonators proudly strut their pointy-toed stuff on the Italian catwalk. Uplift, anyone?

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