Blessed are the film-goers: The Passion according to Mel draws record crowds

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The Independent Culture

It has been panned by the critics, many of whom predicted it would flop on this side of the Atlantic. But cinemas yesterday reported that The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's controversial and extremely violent depiction of the crucifixion, did phenomenal business on its opening night.

It has been panned by the critics, many of whom predicted it would flop on this side of the Atlantic. But cinemas yesterday reported that The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's controversial and extremely violent depiction of the crucifixion, did phenomenal business on its opening night.

A survey by The Independent on Sunday of 35 cinemas shows the film outsold more traditional Friday night fare such as Starsky & Hutch, and Dawn of the Dead.

It defied predictions by critics that a secular British audience would keep away in droves - the film was often playing to a full house. Eight of the cinemas reported selling out on Friday while it was the biggest box office success in all but five venues.

"We had a busy opening night. It was certainly the biggest film we had last night out of the three we were showing," said Richard Lavelli, of the Broadway Cinema, in Letchworth, Hertfordshire.

At Bridgend Odeon the manager reported: "Friday night was nearly sold out. It was definitely the most popular film. What is impressive is that some people who came to the preview screenings are coming back, bringing their friends. It's not going to be like Lord of the Rings, constantly selling out. But it'll last."

In America the success of the film, which cost Gibson $25m (£13.7m) of his own money to make, has been put down to the strength of Christianity. There it topped the box office charts, raking in $250m in its first week.

The author Will Self, reviewing the film in the London Evening Standard last week, said: "It is easy to see why in the US - where churchgoers comprise 50 per cent of the population, there is an aggressively politicised Jewish lobby and a born-again Christian is President - the Gospel according to Gibson would be a source of rich foment and even richer box-office receipts. But, thankfully, here in secularised Britain the film is competing against Monty Python's Life of Brian as a work of Christology, and against Return of the King as a piece of transcendent mythology."

But he and other critics may have miscalculated the capacity of the Church here to organise, and of Icon films, the movie's distributors, to spot a marketing opportunity.

Many cinemas spoken to by the IoS said they had taken block bookings from churches for the Easter weekend.

The UCI chain recorded its biggest ever single purchase when 1,050 seats were brought by one caller in Dudley, in the West Midlands. It recorded full houses in Newcastle, Telford and Maidenhead. "We've had the highest number of phone inquiries about any film in the firm's 18-year history," a spokeswoman said.

Rebecca Polding, of the Arts Picture Houses, said: "We've got it on three screens. It's been doing incredibly well in the Ritzy, in Brixton ... in Stratford, east London, every evening performance over Easter is booked out - £12,500 worth of bookings. It's literally a godsend for cinema, although people don't think of it as a film - they're coming for a religious experience."

Before the film's release church leaders were sent a DVD by Icon films giving handy hints about how best to use the film. One idea was to organise block bookings, another was to put ads for the film on church noticeboards.

There is no doubt that some of those who see the film find it deeply affecting. Churches in Croydon, south London, have set up a counselling hotline for film-goers. "Judging from our own experiences of seeing the film at a special screening for church leaders," said Paul Barrett, of Croydon Jubilee Church, who helped organise the hotline.

In Port Talbot, Caroline Jones, the manager of the Apollo, said: "We've been handing out tissues. We sold 117 seats on Friday out of 250. It is really very graphic and gory, but the film is fantastic."

The film's ability to attract controversy worldwide continues. Kuwait does not normally allow religious Christian films to be shown. Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Mehri, the head of the Shia clerics,urged the government to allow viewings since the movie revealed "the crimes committed by the Jews". He also said the film was good.

In France, threeJewish brothers, Patrick, Gerard and Jean-Marc Benlolo, say the film "will stir anti-Jewish hatred". France has been battling anti-Semitic violence for more than two years, which has often included attacks against Jewish schools and synagogues.

Exit Poll

Who would want to see a foreign-language film about the crucifixion in a town officially identified as one of the most godless in Britain? Loads of people, it turns out.

More than a fifth of the inhabitants of Harlow in Essex described themselves as having "no religion" at the last census but many still ignored more obvious blockbusters in favour of The Passion of the Christ on Friday night.

"I think it was a really good film," said Terry Clark, 46, after the 5pm screening at the UGC multiplex on the edge of town. "It was really enjoyable. I don't go to church, but I do like big epic films. We all know the story, but it was done very well."

Local churches were encouraging their members to attend, and interest was so great that the cinema management invited religious ministers to be on hand in case anyone needed counselling afterwards.

Sarah Thompson, 18 and a Christian, was in tears after the film, and was hardly able to speak. "I just couldn't stop crying," she said.

Cheryann and Tracy Moor, who both claimed to be 18, were dressed in short skirts and heavy make-up and would not have looked out of place in a nightclub. They were going to see The Passion instead of Starsky & Hutch. "We're religious people," Cheryann said with a mischievous grin.

The UGC is on an industrial shopping site a couple of miles outside Harlow. It nestles between sprawling warehouse superstores like Homebase and PC World. You have to make an effort to get there: but as well as attracting regular cinema-goers, the film was bringing in new ones.

"I haven't been to the cinema since In Bed with Madonna," said Jolyn Crawford, 37, a sales merchandiser. "Being a Christian is one reason, but there's so much being said in America about it being against Jews that I wanted to go and make my own mind up."

Ron Kingsmill, pastor of the Freshwater Christian Fellowship, had organised an ecumenical rota so that leaders of the town's churches could be at every showing. "Initially we wanted to hand out flyers, but the manager suggested we come in," he said. "I thought the film was very powerful, it was very true to what is presented in the Gospels. People then knew what it was to have a crucifixion. But we have become detached. I didn't think it was anti-semitic. We are all responsible for Christ's death as he was crucified to atone for our sins. A feature of Christ's life was his run-in with the religious authorities."

Paul Turner, the cinema's manager was so convinced the movie would be a hit that he put it on Screen One, the biggest of the multiplex's six screens. "It's because of the hype, and the quality of the film. It's stunningly photographed and a very powerful film," he said.

However there was one very strange portent for those who wanted to see it: when the film opened for previews at his cinema on Wednesday the audience numbered exactly 666...

Terry Clark: 'We all know the story, but it was well done'

Sarah Thompson: 'I just couldn't stop crying'

Jolyn Crawford: 'I wanted to make up my own mind'

Ron Kingsmill: 'I thought the film was very powerful'