The people streaming out of the movie theater looked as if they’d just attended a wake — and many said they felt as if they had.
Red eyes and muffled crying were common as Christians and the merely curious flocked to theaters nationwide for the Ash Wednesday opening of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
“It’s a little bit more brutal than you would think,” said a sobbing Kim Galbreath, 29, as she left a theater in this Dallas suburb. “I mean, there were times when you felt like it was too much. But I dare anybody not to believe after watching it.”
In Los Angeles, Joseph Camerieri said Gibson’s much-hyped epic about the torture and Crucifixion of Jesus left him shocked and physically weak.
“I think if you’re a Christian, it will increase your faith tenfold in what Christ has done for you,” the 39-year-old paralegal student said after a midnight showing. “If you’re not a Christian, you’ll probably treat others with more love.”
In the central Pennsylvania community of Bellefonte, about 50 people attended a showing after midnight. Viewers groaned as Jesus was nailed to the cross, and soft cries could be heard during more than an hour of Jesus’ torture, crucifixion and death.
In the end, as Jesus rises from the grave, some in the audience quietly celebrated.
“To me, that was the important part,” said Aaron Tucker, an English major at Penn State. “I’m like, ‘Oh, victory!’ There’s more to this movie than just the violence. It’s about triumph.”
In New Jersey, 90-year-old Edna Oatman of Pleasantville dressed in her Sunday best for her first visit to a movie theater since “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” in 1982.
“If you read the Bible story, you know that Jesus died for the whole world, not just Christians,” said Oatman, who saw the film Wednesday morning. “Maybe this will get people going to church.”
Churches reserved theaters“The Passion” opened in more than 3,000 theaters — an unusually large release for a religious film with English subtitles to translate the Latin and Aramaic its characters speak.
Directed, produced and co-written by Gibson, the film has received mixed reviews from critics. Some have praised Gibson’s commitment to his subject: The Oscar-winning “Braveheart” director says the movie is both an attempt to render the Gospels faithfully and a personal vision. Others see it as excessively bloody, obsessed with cruelty and unfair in its portrayal of Jews.
Hillary Salk, 61, of New York said the violence weakened Gibson’s message. Salk, who is Jewish, is writing a novel about Oberammergau, the Bavarian village that casts the entire community in a passion play every 10 years.
“I was overwhelmed by the gore,” she said after seeing the film in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “I think that Jesus would like people to come away from this with the message that American films have too much violence.”
But following months of hype, curiosity about the movie seems almost insatiable. Advance ticket sales hit $10 million, distributor Newmarket Films reported this week — evidence of the skilled marketing campaign and months of word-of-mouth buzz as the film was screened for private, often conservative Christian audiences.
Newmarket opened the film on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the Catholic Church’s period of penitence, sacrifice and reflection before Easter.
Churches from coast to coast reserved entire theaters for opening day, while the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 50 denominations with 43,000 congregations, helped sell tickets on its Web site.
In Plano, churchgoer Arch Bonnema bought out the entire Cinemark Tinseltown 20 theater for Wednesday morning, spending $42,000 of his own money on 6,000 tickets.
“When you see the sacrifice that Jesus made, it makes you feel like, I have to do something better with my life,” said Bonnema, 50, a lifelong Christian inspired to act after seeing the movie.
“It was powerful, stunning,” said Sharla Bickley, 42, a Presbyterian from Dallas. “I tried to keep the mindset the whole time to know that it was me that he was dying for.”
Asked whether she thought the film negatively portrayed Jews, Bickley replied, “Not at all. We all killed Jesus.”
A cadre of ministers was there to reach out to moviegoers.
“Not to preach a sermon,” said the Rev. Jack Graham, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of Prestonwood Baptist where Bonnema is a member, “but to sum up the message and meaning of the cross. ... We anticipate that there will be a tremendous outpouring of God’s favor on this movie.”
Breakfast time viewing
While moviegoers enjoyed their breakfast time viewing of the blood-soaked movie — many of them with their foreheads dabbed with ash from earlier church services — critics continued to complain that Gibson had lost the plot.
The New York Times said the film was half “horror movie” and half “slasher film” and likened its cruelty, brutality and violence to that of Quentin Tarantino, best known for directing “Pulp Fiction” and the more recent “Kill Bill.”
The newspaper played down accusations of anti-Semitism that has been leveled against Gibson’s directorial work, saying the villainous portrayal of Jews in the film “does not seem to exceed what can be found in the source material.”
“To condemn ‘The Passion of the Christ’ for its supposed bigotry is to miss its point and to misstate its problems,” A.O. Scott wrote in The Times.
“ ‘The Passion of the Christ’ never provides a clear sense of what all the bloodshed was for, an inconclusiveness that is Mr. Gibson’s most serious artistic flaw,” he said.
Protests planned“I thought it was a great movie,” said Elsie Figueroa after an early showing at an Upper East Side theater. “People are being too sensitive about it. The Romans are the ones who nailed him to the cross and the Jews helped. It was everyone.”
Jewish and other religious groups planned protests later in the day. Among them Amcha, The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, planned to protest wearing concentration camp uniforms at one New York theater to liken the film’s portrayal of Jews as akin to the Nazi Holocaust.
New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan wrote to parishes to stress that Jews were not responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
“He gave His Life for us,” Egan wrote in a column to appear in next month’s issue of Catholic New York. “No one took it from Him. This is, and has always been, Catholic doctrine.”
The film produced spirited debate outside the East Side theater as the audience left.
“Give us a chance to see the movie,” Exodus Nicholas shouted at a Jewish woman who was complaining about the film.
“Jews should give us a chance to know who Jesus was, to know our history. If we really believe in Jesus and what he stood for we come out of this movie loving people,” Nicholas said.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of Amcha, saw the same screening. “I care deeply about Jewish-Christian relations,” he said. “This is a tremendous, tremendous setback. I hope this will not be accepted by Christians in this country. It is this lie, the lie that Jews were responsible for the murder of Jesus, which planted the seeds of the Holocaust.”
Amcha Vice President Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld said in a statement, “This film is born of the same theology that gave rise to the Holocaust. I am deeply concerned by this film and what may lie in store for Jews around the world following its release.”
Not all critics saw the film in a negative light. Some gave it effusive reviews, including Roger Ebert who called the work,”a very great film.”
Much of the controversy surrounding the film — delivered in Aramaic and Latin with English subtitles — concerns the line referring to Jews from the Book of Matthew, which reads “His blood be on us, and on our children.”
Critics had asked Gibson to remove that line from the final edit but the director chose instead to leave it in while deleting the subtitle that translated it.
Sign of prejudiceA Denver Pentecostal church named “Lovingway” put up a sign that read “Jews killed the Lord Jesus,” prompting about 100 people to march outside the church to protest the message before it was taken down.
The sign in front of the Lovingway United Pentecostal Church was put up on Wednesday, the same day the controversial movie opened in cinemas across the United States.
The 73-year-old pastor of the Denver church, Maurice Gordon, defended the sign and said it was aimed at encouraging people to read the Bible.
“It would be hateful if it pointed at anybody alive today. But this has been part of the record of 2,000 years,” he told the Rocky Mountain News.
The sign was taken down by church members Wednesday night.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.