French cross-roads

'Passion' bows amid controversy, big B.O.

PARIS — Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” took home $523,868 on its first day in France on Wednesday, as pic bowed amid controversy.

Perf, while reflecting strong interest in the film, suggests it won’t be the runaway hit it has been in the U.S.

Pic opened on 502 screens, selling 82,111 tickets its first day. By comparison, Gallic hit “Les Choristes” sold approximately 135,000 tickets on 300 screens when it opened two weeks ago.

“It’s a very atypical film. It’s a UFO,” said Antoine Mesnier, deputy director of development at Gallic exhib UGC. “It could really attract an audience that doesn’t normally go to the movies — an older, religious audience — and you could see a huge score for the weekend.

“But normally, if a film is going to be a huge hit, it will catch on big the first day, which is not really the case here.”

The film had drawn harsh criticism here, and under the circumstances its distributor couldn’t have been more pleased with the first-day results.

“We’re thrilled,” exclaimed Patrice Delaytermoz, director of distribution for Tarak Ben Ammar’s Quinta Distribution. “Given the controversy, we were ready for anything. And the reaction of the audiences was equally as satisfying as counting the receipts. It was moving.

“We took the time to go to different theaters in Paris to be there when the movie let out and people, whatever their religions or race, were really enthusiastic,” Delaytermoz said. “Of course, there were some people who couldn’t stand the violence, which is understandable. But a lot of audiences applauded.”

“The Passion” is Quinta’s first foray into distribution. Other films to be distribbed by Quinta include Michael Douglas starrer “The In-Laws” and “Ballistic,” starring Antonio Banderas.

On Thursday the French Union of Film Producers, which counts Luc Besson among its more than 100 members, issued a press release in “support of Tarak Ben Ammar, who has affirmed his attachment to the freedom of expression and to the free circulation of artistic works in making the public the only judge of Mel Gibson’s direction.”

“That’s quite a difference from Marin Karmitz,” Delaytermoz said, jokingly referring to the head of Gallic mini-major MK2, one of the film’s harshest critics, who refused to air “The Passion” on his circuit.

Karmitz called the film anti-Semitic and “an instrument of fascist propaganda.”

Meanwhile, the council representing Jewish institutions in France (CRIF) denounced the film Thursday, calling it “extremely violent and unhealthy.”

Org said that while it has not called for the film to be banned on the principle of freedom of expression, it “unfortunately finds in this film, obviously conceived by a tortured mind, elements of anti-Semitism that have long been used by the Church before Vatican II, with what consequences we are all aware.”

The CRIF added that it was convinced that the amicable relationship that has been established with the Christian church “will only be reinforced by the rejection by the Christian world of this medieval interpretation of the history of Jesus.”

(Alison James contributed to this report.)

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