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Solemn 'Passion of Christ' fills up theaters

Thursday, February 26, 2004

People leaving the Cape Girardeau theater after viewing "The Passion of the Christ" walked out in stone-cold silence on Ash Wednesday.

"It was like you were walking out of a funeral," said Valerie Legrand, who attended the film with members of the youth group at St. Mary's Cathedral. "People were quiet and had their heads down. It's not really a time for laughing or playing around."

"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.

All but one of the five shows on Wednesday at Town Plaza Cinema were sold out by 6 p.m. And nearly all the weekend showings have been bought out by church groups. Advance ticket sales hit $10 million, according to distributor Newmarket Films.

Area pastors and church officials were invited to an early showing at 10 a.m. Wednesday. The auditorium wasn't full but included representatives from several denominations and churches as far away as Kennett, Mo.

An estimated 6,000 people filled all 20 auditoriums at a Cinemark theater in Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, to watch the film. All the tickets had been bought and donated by a local churchgoer.

Many area churches have also bought tickets for selected showings. Theater employees are encouraging ticketholders to arrive at least 20 or 30 minutes prior to showtime. The film is being shown on two screens at Town Plaza Cinema and will run for at least two weeks.

Mixed reviews

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.

Mike Huffman, children's pastor at First General Baptist Church in Jackson, said the film was biblical.

"That was probably what it was like for Christ," he said. "I've seen a lot of films like this and few of them were as dramatic."

Kathy Wallis, church administrator for the First General congregation, had tears in her eyes as she talked about the film's impact. "As the mother of two young men, my heart really went out to Mary," she said.

Teresa LeGrand agreed. "I'll never say the Hail Mary the same again."

And youth standing around her said that none of their prayers would ever be the same.

"When you see a movie, you can usually just shake it off, but not with this one," Teresa LeGrand said.

The film received the same reaction Wednesday as it had when Jon Sedgwick saw it in a preview screening in Chicago. "People just walk out in silence," he said. Sedgwick is pastor of First Baptist Church in Oak Ridge.

But some ministers thought the film did a good job of showing both the physical and spiritual passion. "The spiritual comes out very clearly," said the Rev. Bill Matzat, chaplain at Southeast Missouri Hospital.

"I think if you're a Christian it will increase your faith tenfold in what Christ has done for you. If you're not a Christian, you'll probably treat others with more love," said Joseph Camerieri, a 39-year-old paralegal student from Los Angeles who watched the film in a midnight showing.

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 muffled 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.

Notre Dame Regional High School students Scott Elsey and Greg Swoboda said the film was brutal. "I'd not recommend it for younger kids," Swoboda said.

"It was very traumatic but it didn't seem exaggerated at all," Elsey said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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