When Mel Gibson announced his latest project—directing The Passion, a $25 million film about the last hours of Jesus, with dialogue in Aramaic and Latin without subtitles—he knew it would raise eyebrows. Some people "think I'm crazy, and maybe I am," said Gibson, who won a directing Oscar for 1995's Braveheart. "But maybe I'm a genius."

What's certain is that Gibson, 47, is ready to run the risk. "This is the most aptly named movie in history, because this is his passion," says friend Dean Devlin, who produced 2000's The Patriot, which starred Gibson. A member of the conservative "traditionalist" Catholic movement, Gibson will graphically depict the violence of the Crucifixion in The Passion, which just wrapped shooting in Italy. "I've never seen a rendering that equals this for reality," Gibson told FOX News' Bill O'Reilly in January. Still, he added, "it's a film that speaks about faith, hope, love and forgiveness."

The movie, which does not yet have a distributor, is being bankrolled through Gibson's own production company—and it's not the only way he's digging deep for his beliefs. The father of seven has spent more than $2.8 million to fund a soon-to-be-constructed church, the Holy Family, near his Malibu home for a congregation of about 70 who now attend mass (celebrated in Latin) in temporary quarters nearby. Gibson and his fellow Catholic traditionalists dissent from the sweeping Vatican II reforms of the 1960s that, for example, encouraged services in the vernacular. In January, Gibson told TIME that reform has "corrupted" the church, leading to "dwindling numbers and pedophilia."

Last week, in a feature article in The New York Times Magazine about Gibson's film, his church project and his faith, the actor's father, Hutton, 84, an author who has railed against the church in the past, was quoted as saying that the Holocaust never happened and that Vatican II was "a Masonic plot backed by the Jews." Friends say Mel does not share such radical sentiments but is passionate about his beliefs and his movie and is aware that some people may find the film's violence "hard to take." Says Devlin: "What he's doing here is not about trying to raise his profile, not about winning an Oscar. He's trying to express his incredibly deep feelings about the subject."