Still from the film "Noah"
After weathering a sea of controversy, "Noah" arrived in first place at the weekend box office.
Paramount's biblical epic starring Russell Crowe in the titular role opened with $44 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
The imaginative take on the tale of Noah's Ark from "Black Swan" director Darren Aronofsky led some religious groups to claim the story had been inaccurately portrayed and prompted Paramount to add a disclaimer to marketing materials noting that "artistic license has been taken" in telling the story.
The polarizing attention apparently paid off for "Noah," which features such additions to the well-known Bible story as angelic rock creatures and chic wardrobes for Noah and his family.
Three Arab countries have banned the Hollywood film "Noah" on religious grounds even before its worldwide premiere. "Censors for Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) officially confirmed this week that the film will not release in their countries," a representative of Paramount Pictures, which produced the $125 million film starring Oscar-winners Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins, told Reuters.
Islam frowns upon representing holy figures in art and depictions of the Prophet Mohammad in European and North American media have repeatedly sparked deadly protests in Islamic countries over the last decade, fanning cultural tensions with the West.
Cairo's Al-Azhar, the highest authority of Sunni Islam and a main centre of Islamic teaching for over a millennium, issued a fatwa, or religious injunction, against the film on Thursday 6 March.
"Al-Azhar ... renews its objection to any act depicting the messengers and prophets of God and the companions of the Prophet (Mohammad), peace be upon him," it announced in a statement.
They "provoke the feelings of believers ... and are forbidden in Islam and a clear violation of Islamic law," the fatwa added.
"Noah," which also stars Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson, also sailed smoothly in 22 international markets, such as Russia and Australia, earning $33.6 million abroad.
"It certainly feels like the film has really connected with both mainstream moviegoers who are looking for a really sophisticated film and those folks who really want to see a movie that honors their faith," Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore said "It's been a very interesting journey to get to this point, but it's definitely a spectacular launch."
"Noah," which also stars Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson, is the latest faith-centric film to appeal to audiences this year. Others include the independently released "God's Not Dead," which earned $9 million in its second outing this weekend, and "Son of God," whose domestic total now stands at $57.9 million since opening last month.
"I think these biblical-themed movies are like the next frontier in Hollywood," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box-office tracker Rentrak. "Hollywood hadn't cracked the code on a biblical movie that would have mainstream appeal. Now, I think they've figured it out. We may see a flood — pun intended — coming down the pipeline. We already have 'Heaven is for Real' and 'Exodus' slated for later this year."
Elsewhere at the box office, Lionsgate's teen science-fiction thriller "Divergent" starring Shailene Woodley earned $26.5 million in its second weekend, bringing its domestic total to $95.3 million.
"Muppets Most Wanted," the globe-trotting Muppet sequel from Disney featuring Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais, came in third place with $11.4 million in its second weekend. The latest Muppet caper's total domestic haul is now at $33.2 million.
The weekend's other major new release, "Sabotage," flopped in the seventh spot with $5.3 million. The Open Road action flick starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is the latest failure for the former California governor, whose "The Last Stand" and "Escape Plan" were box-office duds last year.
Disney's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which opens in the U.S. on Friday, dominated 32 international markets by capturing $75.2 million. The sequel stars Chris Evans as the patriotic Marvel super-soldier.