- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

PLANO, Texas (AP) — 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 curious flocked to theaters nationwide for the Ash Wednesday opening of actor-director 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.”

A middle-aged woman died of an apparent heart attack yesterday while watching the climactic Crucifixion scene in “The Passion” at a morning showing in Wichita, Kan., a television station reported.

The film was stopped, and a nurse in attendance went to the unidentified woman’s side, a spokeswoman for KAKE-TV in Wichita said.

The woman, who was in her 50s, was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital, where a spokesman would say only that she had been attending a movie. The county coroner’s office said an autopsy would be performed.

“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.

Also remarkable for a religious-themed movie were the opening-day receipts — an estimated $15 million to $20 million. Final numbers were to be released today.

Directed, produced and co-written by Mr. Gibson, the film has received mixed reviews from critics. Some have praised Mr. Gibson’s commitment to his subject: The Oscar-winning “Braveheart” director said 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.

“If you intellectualize this movie, the message is one of love. But emotionally, if anyone is on the border of hating Jews, this will push you over,” said Rabbi Bernhard H. Rosenberg, chief rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Edison, N.J.

He also teaches Holocaust studies at Rutgers University.

Meanwhile, Roman Catholic Cardinal Edward Egan of New York spoke against anti-Semitism in a column distributed to the archdiocese’s 413 parishes, “He gave His life for us. No one took it from Him. This is, and has always been, Catholic doctrine.”

Newmarket Films opened the movie on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, Christians’ period of penitence, sacrifice and reflection before Easter.

Churches from coast to coast reserved entire theaters for opening day, and 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 yesterday morning, spending $42,000 of his own money on 6,000 tickets.

“It was powerful, stunning,” said Sharla Bickley, 42, a Presbyterian from Dallas. “I tried to keep the mind-set the whole time to know that it was me that he was dying for.”

In New Jersey, 90-year-old Edna Oatman of Pleasantville dressed in her Sunday best yesterday for her first visit to a movie theater since she saw “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,” Mrs. Oatman said. “Maybe this will get people going to church.”

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