After months of controversy, Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" opened in cinemas across the United States on Wednesday as Jewish groups decried it as anti-Semitic and New York's Roman Catholic cardinal stressed Jews did not kill Jesus.
The film, which cost $25 million to produce, is expected to gross $30 million during its first weekend, with criticism of its violent nature not detering audiences. The film is expected to be the biggest Bible blockbuster of all time.
Manhattan cinemas opened doors early and did brisk business all day among people eager to see a film harshly criticized by some prominent film reviewers before its release in 3,006 theaters nationwide - an opening normally reserved for blockbusters like Gibson's "Lethal Weapon" series.
"People are being too sensitive about it," said Elsie Figueroa after a morning showing on the Upper East Side. "The Romans are the ones who nailed him to the cross and the Jews helped. It was everyone."
Jewish and other religious groups held small, scattered protests later in the day. A couple dozen Jewish protesters wore concentration camp uniforms outside one Upper West Side theater as they sought to link the film's portrayal of Jews to the sort of hate that led to the Nazi Holocaust.
Carrying signs saying "Mel Gibson's 'Passion' is cruci-fiction," they were outnumbered by a media throng.
In Wichita, Kansas, one middle-aged woman died of an apparent heart attack while watching the film's climactic crucifixion scene, a local television station reported.
New York Cardinal Edward Egan wrote to parishes to stress 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."
Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said he was troubled by Gibson's claim of historical accuracy.
"He made his choice," Foxman told a news conference after viewing the film. "And it's to blame the Jews."
He said he was concerned about reaction to the film outside the United States, particularly in the Middle East.
Foxman also said that Gibson had made no changes, despite saying that he had done so.
The film produced spirited debate outside one 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," she said.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of Jewish group Amcha, saw the same screening. "I care deeply about Jewish-Christian relations," he said. "This is a tremendous, tremendous setback. It is this lie, the lie that Jews were responsible for the murder of Jesus, which planted the seeds of the Holocaust."
Thousands in the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas, flocked through the predawn darkness for a free screening at a Cineplex showing it on 20 screens throughout the day.
In recent days, the movie's producers have manufactured a buzz around the opening by arranging advance screenings in U.S. cities for church groups. The official opening was orchestrated for Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent - the Christian season of penance before Easter.
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 - many critics complained 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 leveled at 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 added.
Not all critics panned the film. Some praised it, including Roger Ebert who called it "a very great film.