A mix of the curious and the faithful, many marked with ashen crosses from Ash Wednesday services, turned out for early screenings of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ yesterday, anxious for what was sure to be a trying, but to many life-affirming, experience.
After watching the 12:30 p.m. showing at the Loews Valley Centre in Owings Mills, Lillian Kotula, 69, of Dundalk, was impressed, and moved. "I probably won't be the same for a long time, it left such an impact on me. I think I'll look on everyone with kindness. I think there needs to be a little more kindness."
Across the region, and in 3,000 theaters across the nation, the film's opening was greeted quietly, a far cry from the angst and anger it had engendered in the past few months among those who insist it is anti-Semitic, historically flawed or too violent for general consumption.
Theaters sold $10 million in advance tickets alone, said its distributor, Newmarket Films. Gibson's $25 million film was largely self-financed.
"I went to church and then came right over here," said 81-year-old Vera Nagy of Eastwood, one of about 50 people who waited in line to get tickets for the 9:50 a.m. showing at the Eastpoint, the first screening in the Baltimore area. "I'm a devout Catholic, like Mel is, and I wanted to see if it's shown the way I learned," she said of director Gibson's approach to the final hours of Jesus' life. "Our church is a little more modern now, and I think that's bad."
By showtime, about 120 people had bought tickets for the initial Eastpoint screening.
At the Senator Theatre, 10 students from Towson High were among those who thought the first showing so important that they skipped normal weekday commitments to see the 1 p.m. screening. "We wrote ourselves passes out of school," said Audrea Hamby, 17, of Lutherville. "Technically, I'm at my doctor's."
Still, neither she nor her friends Laura Trueschler, 18, of Towson, and Don Decker, 17, of Randallstown, were expecting repercussions from their self-declared field trip. The film, they said, is important to spiritual growth. All three belong to Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium.
Martina Chang, 47, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Elizabeth, said she thought the film would inspire her and others "to stop and revisit our lives based on what Jesus did, and repent and fast and pray."
Like most of the primarily Christian crowd at Loews Valley Centre, John Zak, 23, downplayed fears that The Passion's depiction of Jewish leaders' role in the death of Jesus (especially Caiaphas, chief villain in the movie) could lead to a wave of anti-Semitism.
"I don't hold the white people responsible for slavery," he said, "and I have German friends I don't hold responsible for the Holocaust. I don't think you can hold the Jewish people responsible for the death of Jesus."
Audrey Calendar of Pikesville brought her three children, ages 11 to 14. "Violence with a purpose and a meaning is a little bit different than arbitrary violence," she said. "My children are well aware of the intense suffering and pain that Christ had to endure."
Moviegoers at the AMC theaters at Towson Commons were greeted by a notice warning that The Passion "contains graphic depictions of brutality. ... AMC strongly advises parents to learn more about the film before deciding if it is appropriate for their children."
"The truth is violent," said Christina Bounelis, 20, of Annapolis, who had come with her father, Bob Bounelis, 52. Still, she expected The Passion to be a "tough movie to watch."
After the 1:50 p.m. showing at Muvico in Arundel Mills, Ivy Queen of Severn was elated. "For the first time, there was a movie that really showed what happened to Jesus," said Queen as she wiped tears from her eyes. ... You could just feel and put yourself in all the agony that he endured for us."
Across the country, the response was mostly positive, despite strongly negative reviews from film critics.
"It was powerful, stunning," said Sharla Bickley, 42, a Presbyterian from Dallas as she left a theater in Plano, Texas. "I tried to keep the mindset the whole time to know that it was me that he was dying for." Asked whether the film negatively portrayed Jews, Bickley replied, "Not at all. We all killed Jesus."
In the central Pennsylvania community of Bellefonte, about 50 people attended a showing just after midnight. Viewers groaned as James Caviezel, the actor playing Jesus, was nailed to the cross, and soft cries could be heard during more than an hour of his on-screen 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."
There were critical voices among the opening-day crowds. Hillary Salk, 61, of New York, said the violence weakened Gibson's message.
"I was overwhelmed by the gore," said Salk, who is Jewish, 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."
Staff writers Mary Carole McCauley, Aron Davidowitz and Christina Santucci and the Associated Press contributed to this article.