THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — I think Mr. Mel Gibson is a great artist," said actress Maia Morgenstern, who portrays Jesus' mother in "The Passion of the Christ."

"Mel is a man of many gifts. It has been not only a joy, but an education working with him," said screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald.

"Mel was incredibly intense. Very demanding. But also, very collaborative. And very gracious," said composer John Debney.

Great artist? Gifted educator? Intense? Are we talking about "Mad Max," the young "Maverick," the guy who quipped his way through all those "Lethal Weapon" movies? Sounds more like adjectives describing Martin Scorsese. But at a recent "Passion of the Christ" media session, those were testimonies lavished on Gibson by his cast and crew.

In their estimation, the Oscar he won for best director for "Braveheart" was not a fluke. Indeed, fellow moviemakers have been astonished at Gibson's enormous versatility and cinematic skill for years. As an actor he delivers films that amuse ("Maverick," "Chicken Run"), films that entertain while addressing social issues ("The Man without a Face," "Braveheart," "The Patriot"), and recently films that uplift with spiritual insights ("Signs," "We Were Soldiers").

After screenings of "The Passion of the Christ," reviewers have been awestruck at the artistry and inventiveness with which Gibson's company has approached this oft-filmed story.

Several have spotlighted one stunning visual effect that occurs after the death of Jesus. The audience is looking down on Golgotha, the three crosses prominent, hangers-on still in attendance. The camera's bird's-eye view takes in the tableau, briefly becoming distorted, as if looking through water. Suddenly that optical illusion converts into a single teardrop falling to earth, signifying God's pain. Then, as the droplet splashes against the ground, His wrath against evil sets off an earthquake. Many are referring to this scene as profound, that it gives a perspective of the Creator's love for His Son and what He was willing to sacrifice for mankind.

Asked why he wanted to tackle Christ's story, Gibson's response was heartfelt. "I wanted to make one that was as realistic as possible; I wanted the audience to feel like they were really there, witnessing the events as they had actually happened," he said in a telephone interview.

"But at the same time it's hugely personal," Gibson said. "I saw other film versions and I couldn't understand them, I couldn't believe them. Once I started meditating on [Christ's] passion, really going deep into it in my own mind and heart, then I began to understand it, to believe that's the version I put on film."

In Hollywood, where an artist can be a gay, Wicca-practicing anarchist and still be one of the gang, those who acknowledge reverence for things Christian are often looked upon with suspicion, sometimes disdain. Despite this bigotry and how it might affect his career, Gibson took on the challenge.

The overriding response to Gibson's composite account of Christ's passion has been favorable. But the film also has met with unprecedented attacks.

Did he anticipate such hostile fallout?

"I expected some criticism, but I wasn't expecting it to get so personal. It's been a real eye-opener," Gibson said. "My prayer life has grown a lot as a result of it. I pray for the people who are upset. I sincerely believe that their suspicions are wrong. This movie will bring people closer together, not incite violence and hatred. That was our experience in making it, and that has been the experience of the people who have seen it so far."

Gibson's steadfastness, integrity and spiritual longing affected others on the production team. Several Catholics, once lapsed in their faith, and unbeknownst to Gibson, had renewed their relationship with Christ before coming to the project.