NEW YORK – Mel Gibson's (search) controversial new film "The Passion of the Christ" opened across the nation on Ash Wednesday amidst great fanfare, debate and emotion.
Many of the more than 3,000 theaters showing the R-rated movie reported that Wednesday's screenings were sold out. Some theaters even had early-morning showtimes.
Numerous filmgoers emerged from seeing "The Passion of the Christ" (search) with puffy, red eyes from crying. Some were still weeping when they got outside.
"It's a little bit more brutal than you would think," said a sobbing Kim Galbreath, 29, as she left a theater in the Dallas suburb of Plano. "I mean, there were times when you felt like it was too much. But I dare anybody not to believe after watching it."
One woman in East Wichita, Kan., collapsed during the movie and died a short while later at a nearby hospital, the local television station KAKE News reported on its Web site.
Audience members at the Warren Theatre East said the woman, in her 50s, collapsed during the segment of the film depicting Christ's crucifixion, reported KAKE, an ABC affiliate. Nurses watching the movie administered CPR, according to the TV station.
The woman was pronounced dead shortly thereafter at a hospital in Wichita, the KAKE Web site said.
Funded and directed by Gibson, the $30 million film has received decidedly mixed reviews from critics and the public alike. Some have praised Gibson's total commitment to his subject: The Oscar-winning filmmaker says the movie is both an attempt to faithfully render the Gospels and a personal vision. Others see it as excessively bloody, obsessed with cruelty and unfair in its portrayal of Jews.
"It's about faith, love, hope and forgiveness ... These are good, valuable messages to send out there," Gibson told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly in an interview.
But many reviewers and movie buffs have said "The Passion" is too violent, and some call it anti-Semitic.
"I was surprised at how angry it made me, how sad it made me," J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Jewish weekly "The Forward," told Fox News on Wednesday. "It made no attempt to explain why Jesus was going through this ... I think everybody walked out hardened."
Following months of hype, curiosity about the movie has been almost insatiable. Scores of filmgoers went to take in "The Passion" on Wednesday, and many more planned to go in the near future.
Advance ticket sales hit $10 million, distributor Newmarket Films (search) reported this week — evidence of the skilled marketing campaign and word-of-mouth buzz as the film was screened for private, often conservative Christian audiences.
The opening day receipts reached an estimated $15 million to $20 million. Final numbers were to be released Thursday.
Newmarket opened the film on Ash Wednesday (search), 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 (search), which represents more than 50 denominations with 43,000 congregations, helped sell tickets on its Web site.
An estimated 6,000 people in Plano filled all 20 auditoriums at a Cinemark theater to watch the film. All the tickets had been bought and donated by a local churchgoer.
"I hope everybody sees it with an open mind," said Rick Pierce, 53, a Baptist who sipped coffee and chewed on a breakfast burrito at the Plano theater before the first showing.
Some Jewish and other religious groups had different ideas, with plans of staged protests Wednesday. Members of Amcha, The Coalition for Jewish Concerns (search), were going to one New York theater in concentration camp uniforms to draw a parallel between the film's depiction of Jews and the Holocaust, Reuters news service reported.
New York Cardinal Edward Egan (search) urged religious leaders to emphasize that Biblical scripture doesn't blame Jews for Jesus' death.
In a column he penned for next month's "Catholic New York," excerpts of which were reprinted in Wednesday's New York Post, Egan wrote: "He gave His Life for us. No one took it from Him. This is, and has always been, Catholic doctrine."
Egan quoted Jesus in the Gospel according to St. John, Chapter 10, verses 14 to 17: "I lay down my life for the sheep ... No one takes it from me. I lay it down of my own accord."
Some believe the movie will deepen Christians' faith and actually increase their admiration for the Jewish people, since Jesus and his followers were Jewish.
"This film is going to revive and renew the church," Dr. Ted Baehr, founder of the Christian Film and Television Commission (search), told Fox News. "It's a great movie. It's well done ... The more people come to Christ, the more they will appreciate the Jews."
But some worried the film could have the reverse effect.
"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.
"With all the publicity, Mel Gibson is laughing all the way to the bank," Rosenberg said after seeing the film. "Theaters are going to be packed, and his pockets will be lined."
At St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, a few morning churchgoers expressed support for Gibson and his film.
"I admire him for putting up his own money ... I'm all for the project," Dean Seabrook of Woodstock, N.Y., told Fox. "It's a timeless story, so why not tell it again?"
In other parts of the country, many couldn't wait for morning screenings. More than 100 people watched the midnight showing at the ArcLight Cinemas in Los Angeles.
"I'm in shock. I'm physically weak. I'm emotional," said Joseph Camerieri, a 39-year-old paralegal student from Los Angeles who was trying to hold back tears after seeing the film.
"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."
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.
"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."
On the other side of the world in Gibson's homeland of Australia, ticket sales amounted to about $389,000 before the Ash Wednesday release of the film. Aussie reactions to "The Passion" have been just as mixed as in the U.S.
"I thought it was a beautiful piece of work, deeply moving for me as a believer ... very violent," Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell told Fox News.
But at a preview screening late Tuesday in Sydney, several people walked out in the middle, either upset about the violence or the message of the movie. Others who didn't cut their viewing short wished they had.
"I was sorry that I went," Rabbi Raymond Apple told Fox. "With all the violence I would really have walked out before the end if I'd had the guts to do it. I felt that the violence in some ways obscured the message."
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (search) who saw "The Passion" before opening day, said Wednesday he was still worried about reactions to the film when it comes out in places like Argentina and Europe, where there's been less debate about its content.
"We know the power of images, and we know the power of a star with a reputation around the world, and this concerns us," Foxman said.
In Plano, Arch Bonnema, a financial planner, reserved the entire Cinemark Tinseltown 20 theater, spending $42,000 of his own money on 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 a special screening of the movie.
A cadre of ministers were on hand to reach out to moviegoers.
"Not to preach a sermon," said Rev. Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist, where Bonnema is a member and president of the Southern Baptist Convention, "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."
After seeing "The Passion" a few months ago, Bonnema called his wife, Sherry, and told her, "Honey, we've got to get as many people as we can to see this film because it's changed my life."
With her blessing, he approached Cinemark about reserving a single auditorium. Theater officials told him that would be fine, but he would need to do so before regular operating hours.
"If it's before hours, aren't all of them empty?" Bonnema recalled asking. "So I called my wife back and said, 'What do you think about getting 6,000 seats?'"
She agreed, even though she hadn't seen the film herself.
The Bonnemas gave 3,000 tickets to their church and 1,000 to the Dallas Theological Seminary.
That left them with 2,000 — but not for long.
"I put out an e-mail to friends in the Dallas-Fort Worth area," Arch Bonnema said. "In three days, I had 23,000 requests."
Ordinarily, showing the same movie on 20 screens would be impossible because of a lack of prints, said Terrell Falk, spokeswoman for Plano-based Cinemark USA, which owns about 300 theaters in 33 states.
But in this case, Cinemark made special arrangements to borrow prints from its other area theaters.
"We'll show it early in the morning, then take them to the other theaters," Falk said.
Regarding online ticket sales, AOL's Moviefone and Fandango reported that not all tickets to "The Passion" were sold out Wednesday, but predicted weekend seats would be particularly hard to come by.
"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.
Fox News' Rebecca Gomez, Catherine Donaldson-Evans and The Associated Press contributed to this report.