Dan Brown's best seller begins its worldwide debut Wednesday with Tom Hanks as the cryptologist pursuing a 2,000-year-old mystery that could reveal Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and that the Vatican covered it up.
Among his co-stars is Paul Bettany, the British actor playing monk-assassin Silas, an albino with red eyes who carries out a series of bloody murders to secure the secret of the Holy Grail, a trove of lost Christian documents that could prove Jesus had wed.
Critics cite a long list of albinos cast as heavies by Hollywood: The dreadlocked twins in "The Matrix Reloaded," a powder-haired hit man in the Chevy Chase-Goldie Hawn crime romp "Foul Play," the pasty zombies in "The Omega Man," a sadistic killer in "Cold Mountain," even the wicked executioner in the fairy-tale comedy "The Princess Bride."
Michael McGowan, an albino who heads the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, said "The Da Vinci Code" will be the 68th movie since 1960 to feature an evil albino.
"Silas is just the latest in a long string," McGowan said. "The problem is there has been no balance. There are no realistic, sympathetic or heroic characters with albinism that you can find in movies or popular culture."
People with albinism have little or no pigmentation in their skin, eyes and hair.
McGowan said his group asked "Da Vinci Code" director Ron Howard's production outfit, Imagine Entertainment, not to bleach Silas' hair or make his eyes red, but "that fell on deaf ears."
When offered the role, Bettany initially thought mainly of the makeup challenge, saying past attempts to lighten non-albino actors' pigmentation had not looked realistic.
Bettany said he looked at Silas not as an evil albino but as a man damaged by his harsh upbringing. In the book, Silas was an abused child who wound up on the streets, was scorned as an outcast, turned to violence and landed in prison.
"I thought, this man's a psychopath, and he's not a psychopath because he's an albino," Bettany said. "He's an amalgamation of everything that sort of happened to him in his life. How his father treated him and the things he saw his father do to his mother, and he happens to be preternaturally gifted at hurting people. ...
"I think it's no more a comment on albinos than it is on monks, and no more a comment on monks than it is on people who wear sandals," Bettany said.
Many readers found Silas a tragic character despite his misdeeds, viewing him more as a lost sheep than a villain.
McGowan said his group plans no boycotts or picketing. Instead, the group aims to use the movie's popularity to raise awareness about the realities of albinism. He said he enjoyed most of the book and plans to see the movie.
"We understand that millions read it and when they go to the movie, they're going to want to see the albino monk-assassin," McGowan said. "It's the cumulative effect of having one evil albino character after another that was disturbing to me."