The Gospel of Mel

02/26/2004 AT 10:38 AM EST

On an Italian hilltop where he was staging the Sermon on the Mount, Mel Gibson watched as lightning struck the man playing Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. A pink light engulfed actor Jim Caviezel's body, but miraculously, he was unharmed. Ever since, Gibson has told the story, with a wink, as evidence of a major VIP visitor to the set.

Does Gibson have God on his side? For some, The Passion – Gibson's long-awaited account of Jesus' excruciating final 12 hours, which opened on 4,600 screens on Ash Wednesday – is a miracle: a Hollywood movie reverent enough to bring legions into the flock. Others find it shockingly violent; some see anti-Semitism. To critics, it's a "sickening death trip" (The New Yorker) or "a very great film" (Roger Ebert).

To Gibson, it's as personal as a movie gets. At the height of his stardom, he has said, he was drowning in fame, wealth, drink and despair – until he fell to his knees, asked God's help and returned to the rigid Catholicism of his youth. A dozen years later Gibson aims to share the healing in a film he has claimed was helmed by the Holy Ghost: "I was just directing traffic."

Late in shooting Gibson declared, "You can't please everybody, but then again, that's not my goal." What is? And why has this film ignited so many people's passion?

Who is Jesus, to Mel Gibson?
To understand Gibson's take, it helps to know that the 48-year-old director credits Jesus – and in particular Jesus' suffering – with literally saving his life. In the grip of a near-suicidal depression in his mid-30s, "I had to use the Passion of Christ and wounds to heal my wounds," he told The New Yorker last year. Gibson joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1991 and turned to the religion he was raised in. As a Catholic "traditionalist," Gibson belongs to a conservative movement (with an estimated 100,000 U.S. adherents) that rejects many of the modernizing reforms of Vatican II made by the Roman Catholic Church in the '60s. His wife of 23 years, Robyn – who's Episcopalian – and their seven kids, ages 4 to 23, attend a traditionalist church, Holy Family Chapel, that Gibson had built last year near their Malibu, Calif., home. Family life chez Gibson? Simpler – and stricter – than much of Hollywood. The kids grew up with Dad driving carpool, doling out occasional spankings and shielding them from his R-rated films.

Gibson's youngest, Thomas, 4, won't be seeing the R-rated Passion (but next oldest sibling Milo, 14, will). In just over two hours the film spares no graphic detail in depicting Jesus' torture and crucifixion. Gibson has said that, onscreen, Jesus is "usually fairly effete." Not here. "This is a Jesus who can take the pain," says Christianity Today film critic Peter Chattaway. "Mel Gibson has reinvented Jesus in his own image."

From Our Partners