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GREAT FALLS (AP) - A group of Great Falls pastors say they have succeeded in bringing Mel Gibson's movie about Jesus' last hours to Great Falls, starting on Ash Wednesday _ and continuing for four weeks.

"I'm absolutely thrilled," said the Rev. Cory Engel. "I'm glad they're bringing it here and can't wait to see it."

Engel, pastor of Harvest Springs Community Church, was the catalyst for an effort by local evangelical churches to get "The Passion of the Christ" brought here by pledging to buy large numbers of tickets.

The movie is scheduled to debut in 2,000 screens nationwide on Feb. 25. Randy Boleman, west division manager for Georgia-based Carmike Cinemas Inc., said Carmike will open it that day in most of its 300 locations.

In Montana it is scheduled to open in Great Falls, Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Missoula and Helena.

Feb. 25 is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian Lent, the 40-day period leading to Easter.

"The preliminary booking in Great Falls is for four weeks, but if there's plenty of demand that could easily be extended," Boleman said.

Theaters will be able to sell advance tickets starting next Friday, Boleman said. That's a first for most of the theaters.

Details will be worked out by local movie managers, he said. In Great Falls, up to 190 seats will be sold in advance, leaving about 60 for walk-in traffic.

Some Great Falls churches plan to buy up whole showings for members and friends.

"Getting the movie here was half the battle," Engel said, referring to doubts that seats could be reserved ahead of time because of the chain's usual practices.

"The tougher half might be the city's churches cooperating on ideas to raise money to buy all the tickets we envision and promoting the movie," he said.

Engel said he was swamped with calls Thursday, including being interviewed by the entertainment publication Variety about his efforts to get the movie.

Variety said 2,000 screens is an unusually large release for an independent religious film with some reportedly gory scenes of Christ being beaten and crucified. It is filmed in Latin and Aramaic, the Jewish dialect Jesus spoke, with subtitles.

It has drawn advance raves for its power and accuracy from the Rev. Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II, but also has raised concerns that its depiction of the role of Jewish leaders might revive the idea that all Jews are to blame for Christ's death.

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