'Christ' drawing crowds to the theaters

Passions are running high for Mel Gibson’s religious drama in predominantly Catholic Latin America.

Advance ticket sales for “The Passion of the Christ” are well under way from key Latin American exhibitors in anticipation of its rollout next week. Some rival distribs have even shifted the release dates of their titles to avoid the crunch.

Twentieth Century Fox will release “The Passion of the Christ” across the region, starting March 17 in Trinidad and Jamaica and ending in Argentina on March 25.

Some countries have ambitious rollouts: Brazil plans to release 300 prints and Mexico a whopping 500.

In Argentina, virtually all the circuits have begun selling tickets. Rolando Bevilacqua, operations manager of Anonima Cinematografica, the sixth-biggest exhib in Argentina, expects to pre-sell 5%-10% of its tickets for opening night.

Fox plans to release “Passion” on 80 prints in Argentina, which is average for blockbusters in this South American nation of fewer than 1,000 screens.

But there are already rumblings from Argentina’s Jewish community about what impact the film might have.

Sergio Widder, the Latin American representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says he is concerned that the film could spark a resurgence in blame on the Jewish community for the death of Christ, further weakening Jewish-Christian relations and spurring hatred toward Jews.

The 200,000-plus Jewish community in Argentina is the biggest in Latin America.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, “Passion” bows the day before the official release March 19 as some exhibs have been selling out entire theaters for previews to large groups, mainly Protestants.

The Archbishop of Hermosillo, Jose Ulises Macias Salcedo, announced his intention to go and encouraged Mexican Catholics, which make up 90% of the population, to see it as well.

In Costa Rica, Fox gave the Episcopal Conference first crack at the film, which it will screen in San Jose’s biggest theater. The clergy has snapped up most of the tickets for the March 18 preview.

Chile, the most staunchly conservative nation in the region, has restricted the admittance age to 14 years and older. It was only last year it lifted the ban on Martin Scorcese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Religious dramas have generally proven sure-fire hits in the region.

In Mexico, Carlos Carrera’s “The Crime of Father Amaro” continues to reign as the biggest local blockbuster of all time.

In Brazil, “Mary, Mother of the Son of God,” lured more than 2.3 million moviegoers, driven by retirees crowding the usually empty afternoon screenings.

Columbia Tristar Brazil and local producer Diler & Asociados have a sequel in the works, “The Apostles” with “Mary” director Moacyr Goes attached once again.

(Ken Bensinger, Marcelo Cajueiro and Charles Newbery contributed to this report. )

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