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Gibson Film Reigns on Opening Day

Special to The Times

Across the nation, the religious, the skeptical and the merely curious turned out en masse Wednesday to give Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” an opening day that appears on track to rival the large first-day box office of films such as “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” and “The Matrix” sequels.

The crowds ranged from groups of New York rabbis and Christian interfaith leaders to Southern California suburbanites to Catholics fresh from Ash Wednesday services. Some moviegoers sobbed after watching the graphic depiction of Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion. Many spoke of being deeply moved, while others seemed aghast at the film’s violence and depiction of Jews.

The base of support for the R-rated film appeared to be a large Internet- and media-savvy conservative Christian audience.

Some industry sources said the movie looked as if it could gross more than $20 million by Wednesday night. Rival studios said the figure could go significantly higher.

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Gibson invested more than $25 million in the film, which opened on more than 4,000 screens and has broken records for advance-ticket sales.

“This kind of want-to-see in advance sales places it in the realm of the biggest blockbuster films,” said Russ Nunley, marketing and communications director for Regal Entertainment Group, which is playing the movie at 460 of its 550 locations nationwide. “The big question today was how it would do in terms of foot traffic and we’ve seen a lot of it on day one. The movie is living up to its advance sales, which have been hot and heavy.”

It remains to be seen how long the movie, which has received mixed reviews, will continue on the same pace. In the short run, it clearly has benefited from heavy publicity generated by the controversies surrounding it, and from a broad outreach campaign to evangelical Christians.

Churches bought out entire theaters; some individuals sent out emails encouraging people to come out opening weekend and even offered baby-sitting services for parents.

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“When you go to a movie opening weekend, it’s as if you’re casting a vote for that movie,” Wendy Wilmowski, a Washington D.C. resident and self-described movie producer and Catholic, wrote in an e-mail to 50 friends that was later broadly circulated on the Internet. "... If you want to see the Passion open huge (as it has every chance of doing), if you want to see it rock Hollywood back on its heels in surprise ... Let’s prove it to those antichrist that we love Jesus more than anything in this world,” her message read.

At the sold-out midnight screening of “The Passion of the Christ” at Arclight Cinemas’ Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, no one came in costume but many brought with them an opening night giddiness reminiscent of “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” fans.

People said they came to the first screening so they could see for themselves what the controversy was about and speak with an informed opinion. The film focuses on the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life. Once the film began, the intensity of the violence caused many to turn their heads from the screen. During the real-time scourging scene, many began to openly weep. “It was completely powerful and heartbreaking,” said Amee Akers. “It touched me more than anything I’ve ever experienced. I think one viewing may be enough.”

Others, like Daryl Pine, were incensed. Pine, who is Jewish, felt the violence of the film was presented without any context for the life of Jesus, and found the depiction of the Jewish high priests anti-Semitic.

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“The violence was stomped down on top of us,” she said. “And [Gibson] made the Jews look like dirty, evil scoundrels.”

In New York, Jewish and Catholic religious leaders attended a noon showing of the film together, then promptly agreed to disagree on what they saw -- and in vintage New York fashion also vowed to avoid “phony dialogues” that covered up over their differences.

The Catholic leaders praised Gibson’s movie as a “spiritual” experience that condemned man’s inhumanity to man, while their Jewish counterparts criticized it as classic anti-Semitism.

At Houston’s AMC Studio 30, Winta Ghebretinsae, a student at Houston Community College, came alone so she could decide for herself what she thought of the movie. After watching it once, the 19-year-old described herself as “stunned from the experience,” but was determined to head back into the next showing.

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“I want it to consume me,” she said as she fiddled with her pink beaded earrings and took several deep breaths. “I want to see how much he loved me ... this is not a movie, this is truth. I don’t know how you eat popcorn while your savior is being crucified.”

In a drizzle outside the Houston theater, Army Sgt. Desiree Mockler-Thompson, 29, lit a cigarette and talked about the movie with her mother. They had emerged from the 11:45 a.m. showing, and had noticed a woman leave during the extended scene of Jesus’ beating.

“She took her purse and didn’t come back,” Mockler-Thompson said, shrugging in disbelief. “Some people call it anti-Semitic. I don’t understand why. It was an awesome movie, and if you don’t get it -- read the book.”

In Alhambra, the Edwards Atlantic Palace 10 theater sold out many of its shows, with some moviegoers saying they had waited in line for hours, skipped school or taken a day off from work.

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Elva Gutierrez, 43, a South Pasadena computer analyst who brought her Mexican-born mother to the theater’s first showing at 11 a.m., called the film “breathtaking.”

“The sense of hope, the sense of forgiveness, the sense of unconditional love -- that’s what the message is,” said Gutierrez, who described herself as a devout Christian.

The day brought at least two distressing incidents. In Wichita, a woman died, apparently of aheart attack, while watching the movie.

And in Laurel Canyon, a street was blanketed with anti-Semitic fliers purportedly from the National Alliance, a white supremacist group founded by neo-Nazi William L. Pierce. The flyer stated that “Jewish pressure groups” like the Anti-Defamation League, “have gone to great lengths to keep you from seeing ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ ”

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Gibson’s spokesman, Alan Nierob, said: “There are bigots everywhere and it’s sad. Mel obviously has nothing to do with them.”

Munoz and Day reported from Los Angeles, Calvo from Texas. Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Paul Lieberman in New York and Elaine Dutka, Larry Stammer and Teresa Watanabe in Los Angeles.


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