South Africans flocked to cinemas on Thursday to watch the first screenings of the hotly-anticipated Nelson Mandela biopic in a country still battling to exorcise its dark past. Viewers of the two-and-a-half hour "Long Walk to Freedom" tracing Mandela's life from childhood to his landmark 1994 election said the film gave them a better insight into South Africa's past, but it was also an emotional rollercoaster. "I don't know how to express myself," said a visibly overwhelmed Mapulane Tsilo, 39, who cried throughout the screening she attended in a former bedrock of anti-apartheid activism, Soweto. Mapulane had been at Mandela's first public rally in Johannesburg in 1990 after his release from 27 years in jail. She said the 95-year-old peace icon "is like a Jesus." The film based on Mandela's autobiography of the same name was simultaneously launched in over 100 cinemas across South Africa following a major advertising campaign. "Everybody should watch the movie," said 27-year-old Tumelo Kotishe, while Jaco Nel, 35, praised the film's balanced portrayal of events. "It shows the violence and the prejudice that was there before but it also shows the compassion at the end as well, from both sides." Viwe Cele, 39, said she now has "a better understanding" of her country's history. "South Africans as a whole must come and watch the movie, it's a great movie." The manager at Ster Kinekor cinema in Soweto's Southgate Mall said attendance was abnormally high for a Thursday, as some viewers took the day off work just to make it. Mandela became South Africa's first black president in 1994, after the fall of the whites-only apartheid regime. He is currently under intensive care at his home after spending almost three months in hospital receiving treatment for a recurring respiratory infection.