"What if 'the greatest story ever told' is a lie?"

Given the immense reactionary power of today's Church, and the violent intolerance of its fundamentalist minions, what more radical question could be asked?

No film has ever been in position to give a more penetrating answer than THE DAVINCI CODE. And…praise the Goddess!…it largely delivers.

It will be easy to fault this flick, and many will, for all sorts of reasons, including its often ponderous tone and mournful pace.

But whatever their pitfalls, this movie is a strong companion to a book that embodies a healing challenge to the virulent virus of reactionary "Christian" fundamentalism.

With a staggering 45 million copies in print, Dan Brown's DAVINCI is a force of nature. It's a solid murder thriller, full of twists and gadgetry, hidden riddles and secret codas.

But that alone cannot begin to explain the story's huge appeal. As they say in New Age circles, "there must be a reason."

DAVINCI has a cult following because it makes two spiritual assertions that millions of ordinary people have waited centuries to hear. One is being debated interminably. The other, far more radical, you've barely read.

The first, of course, is the idea that Christ was married to Mary Magdalene, and that they conceived a child. Far from being a prostitute (as she was slimed by the Rovian Church) Mary was carrying Jesus's child when she sat with him as his wife at their Last Supper. She mixed the blood of his Crucifixion with the tears of a widowed mother-to-be, then fled to France and delivered their daughter, Sarah.

Whether Sarah then mothered a royal line of divine descendents fades into the stuff of conspiracy. It moves from the core to the fringe of the Essential Truth: Christ was not merely human, but carnal. If he bore the Divinity within him, he expressed it, as have so many, as a lover of women. If he was elevated by later followers (and users) from radical activist to Prophet to Messiah for purposes of building a male-dominated fortress, then the lust with which he knocked up his wife had to go.

How the worship of a spiritual rebel who attacked the money changers and challenged the power of Rome could translate into a corrupt mega-cult run by power- and cash-crazed sometime celibates becomes a question for the ages. The Church's feverish counter-attack confirms the heresy.

DAVINCI the book reminds us that few Jewish men in the Jerusalem of Jesus could have remained unmarried to the age of 33 without their mothers (Virgin or otherwise) getting seriously on their case. And if that's not a woman sitting next to Jesus in Leonardo's "Last Supper," then the age of the trans-sexual came far earlier than the art critics would have you believe. Or maybe John the Baptist was just ahead of his time.

Did he or didn't he? Was she or wasn't she?

As the Church has been first to say, with its infinite spin: the answers do matter. The strategy du jour to distract and bury us in the usual semi-relevant detail.

But it's the second, deeper assertion that cuts to the core.

Both the book and movie tell us the Christian Church was established on the bloodied soul of pagan feminism. Before Peter's lethal male chauvinism became the papal rock, the human spirit revolved around cults of fertility, worship of the vaginal rose, the sacred feminine.

The war between the female chalice and the male blade is as old as the Piscean Age, i.e. about 2000 years. With the ossification of Christianity as we now know it, the male took power with the sword and the stake.

It has not been a pretty picture. Millions of "witches" have been raped and burned as surely as they have been denied reproductive choice and told that sex without male sanction and domination is a form of cardinal sin. The on-going effects are as clear and present as the slaughter in Iraq and the Apocalypse of global warming.

That DAVINCI presents this in-your-face paganism is the hidden key to its fervent following. To worship at the bones of Mary Magdalene is to demand the rebirth of feminine balance, to restore the power of the womb of creation to a society dominated, in the age of the papal Bull and George W. Bush, by divinely ordained testosterone terrorism.

The challenge is as heretical to today's fundamentalists as to the witch burners of the middle ages and the mass slaughter of the Crusaders. The modern anti-pagan right wing is every bit as willing to burn and bury its heretics as the Puritan fanatics who have hated uppity women and Mother Nature since the day they remade Christ in the twisted image of their own prudish psychopathology.

There are intriguing counter-plays between the book and movie. The book implies a sexual tension between its male and female protagonists that the film gratefully avoids. Instead, it gracefully introduces a summary moment of exquisite humor missing from the book, which has nary a laugh to offer.

The film lacks the long expository passages of "illuminati" text that ground its politics. But it does let its most interesting character, played by Ian McKellen, lay out the feminist case with appropriate clarity and flair.

Of course, if either the book or the movie had been more precisely true to their larger theme, then this "old wives tale…the greatest cover-up in human history" should really have been revealed by a woman. "As long there has been one true God, there has been killing in His name," says McKellen. But why would the Goddess trust a man to make the point?

For this linguistically-challenged midwesterner, at least, the film suffers from the French accent of the female lead. Audrey Tautou lends an Audrey Hepburn face. But is it too late to give her subtitles?

Tom Hanks does his usual solid journeyman's job. Both he and Ms. Tautou grow into their roles as the story evolves. The screen tones also move nicely from dark to light, and Hans Zimmer's crescendo score stops just short of leaping over the top.

The ideological fireworks are left in the able hands of Mr. McKellen, whose screen presence is a magnetic wonder. The same must be said of Jean Reno, whose multi-layered detective Bezu Fache nails one of the film's great revelatory moments.

But the murderous monk Silas is sadly miscast. Paul Bettany looks way too Hollywood for this role. Someone with real albino hair and eyes might have made the film's Frankenstein as truly terrifying as the book imagines him.

As the Holy Grail of today's Culture War, this anti-icon is a sitting duck for all forms of attack. It's long, dark, and occasionally obscure for those who haven't read the book and can't decode a French accent.

But Akiva Goldman's script and Ron Howard's direction do honor the message and density of Dan Brown's original, whose potential impact is hard to overstate. For a big-time feature film to assert that "Christ's throne may live through a female child" is to throw down the chalice of a sexual Armageddon.

At its spiritual core, DAVINCI the book and movie are as gratefully pregnant with overdue debate as Mary Magdalene with husband, defying the male disciples.

Harvey Wasserman's GLIMPSE OF THE BIG LIGHT: LOSING PARENTS, FINDING SPIRIT is at www.harveywasserman.com.