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A passion for "Passion"

By By Arthur McLean Managing Editor
Strand Theater owner Wayne Kelly is keeping two boxes of tissue near the ticket counter these days.
With the opening of Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ," the boxes are getting a workout.
"It's been the wildest thing I've seen in 14 years of working with a movie theater," Kelly said. "This is like nothing Atmore has ever seen before."
The movie opened Wednesday, and already, Kelly is seeing a brisk business.
On a Thursday night, moviegoers left the film, many with reddened eyes and somber expressions on their faces.
Words like "touching" "impressive" "graphic" and "moving" were used to describe the movie by Atmore residents who saw the movie Thursday night. "Everyone should see it," said one local man. One pastor, so moved by the experience, declined to comment for the paper.
With some media controversy surrounding Gibson's vision of Jesus Christ's last hours before his crucifixion, interest is high for the film that is in limited release around the country.
"I've never seen interest in a movie like this one," Kelly said.
"The Passion of the Christ" grossed an estimated $26.6 million, the fifth best Wednesday opening for a movie, according to Newmarket Film, the movie's distributor.
"It's pretty brutal," said Chad Thrower. "I'm not the most religious person, but I have a lot of respect for what he went through."
As far as Gibson's vision played, Thrower said he felt the movie held to the story in the Bible. "I think it went really well, as far as that went."
Thrower also didn't see where the movie would spark anti-Semitism as some have claimed. "I don't think it really took sides," he said. "It did show the priests in a bad light, but it holds very close to the story."
Kelly said he had to fight to even get a copy of the movie to show in Atmore's single screen theater. But once he had it, Kelly decided to make a commitment to the movie. He is running it for four weeks instead of the usual two-week run for most movies.
"It's just unbelievable. Nothing's had this much publicity or passion from people to see it – no pun intended," Kelly said.
While a few viewers have left the screenings early disturbed by what they saw, Kelly said most stay through the whole movie. "Once they go in, they don't come out until it's over. I was afraid we would lose due to lack concession sales."
Interest in the movie locally is white hot. While discussing the movie, the theater's phone continued to ring. Kelly would answer one call about the movie and click over to calling waiting for another through half a dozen calls as late as 9 p.m.
"It's been like that for a week," Kelly said. "My wife and I have to turn the phone off at home to sleep." The theater's schedule message has received over 100 calls per day since the movie was announced.
Because of the interest, Kelly has scheduled 11 additional shows for churches and other groups who want to take the theater for private viewings. The normal show times are still on a first-come first-served basis. "We're trying to accompany the public and the church and business groups the best way we can," Kelly said.