Mel's Huge 'Passion' Opening

02/25/2004 AT 01:00 PM EST

There was no shortage of drama during the first day of Mel Gibson's anticipated new film "The Passion of the Christ," which stars Jim Caviezel.

The story of the last 12 hours of Jesus's life opened on more than 4,000 screens on Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent, or the Christian period of penance leading up to Easter.

Although official tallies have not been released, early box-office reports indicated the film was well on its way to taking in more than $20 million in its first day, the trade publication Variety reports. That amount may break the record for a one-day total for a film released outside the May-August and November-December seasons. The previous record was set by "Hannibal," which took in $19.8 million during its first day in 2001.

Wednesday's numbers put "Passion" on par with other blockbuster films such as "The Matrix Revolutions" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

But still, "The Passion" continued to stir controversy. In New York, Jewish protestors wearing concentration camp uniforms congregated outside one theater, Reuters reports, as they tried to draw parallels between what they say is the film's anti-Semitic tone and the hatred that fueled the Holocaust.

After viewing the film at another theater, Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Jewish group Amcha 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."

However, other moviegoers demanded to see the film themselves and make up their own minds. "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," said Exodus Nicholas prior to screening the film in New York, reports Reuters.

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