The Passion of the Christ is a 2004 biblical drama written by Benedict Fitzgerald and Mel Gibson. It remains the highest-grossing R-rated film in America, earning $612 million at the box office. Also directed by Gibson, the film received three Academy Award nominations in 2005.
Despite its success, however, the movie was beset by serious problems during filming – not least when lightning struck the set twice, hitting one of the stars and a crew member.
The film tells the story of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ’s life, with Jim Caviezel in the leading role. Largely drawing from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, it was filmed in the ancient languages of Aramaic and Latin.
The plot depicts one of Jesus’ disciples, Judas Iscariot, receiving a bribe of 30 pieces of silver. Subsequently, he betrays Jesus and the armed temple guards move in to arrest him. Later, consumed with guilt, Iscariot hangs himself.
Jesus is condemned to crucifixion and has to carry the heavy wooden cross along the Via Dolorosa to Calvary. As he hangs on the cross, he prays to God for forgiveness for the people who condemned him to death. As he dies, an earthquake destroys the temple. After Jesus’ lifeless body is entombed, he is resurrected and exits the tomb.
The Passion of Christ was released in the United States by independent distributors, Newmarket Films. Although the controversial film received mixed reviews – some criticising its extreme violence – it was a huge box office success.
The disasters while filming almost eclipsed the film’s release, after a lightning bolt hit assistant director Jan Michelini during filming in Matera, Italy. The lightning struck his umbrella, causing minor burns to his fingers.
The set was struck a second time by lightning, while filming took place in a remote location outside Rome. On this occasion, Michelini was hit again along with the film’s star, Caviezel.
At the time, producer Steve McEveety told the media he was about 100ft away and didn’t realise what had happened – until he saw smoke around Caviezel’s ears. Neither Michelini nor Caviezel suffered serious injury.
Hair on fire
In an interview after the film’s release, Caviezel described being, “lit up like a Christmas tree” when the lightning struck. He saw the bolt coming towards him but was hit seconds later and couldn’t get out of the way in time. He described how the film extras grabbed the ground to try and earth themselves. His hair was set alight on both sides and his whole body was illuminated. He said he felt a “tremendous slap” on both his ears and a sensation of pink and red static in front of his eyes.
Caviezel recalled hearing Gibson shouting, “What happened to his hair?” and then Michelini walked over to see if he was ok – before a second bolt came down and struck Michelini too. He earned the nickname, “lightning boy” because it was the second time he had been hit.
Caviezel felt it was a literal miracle he hadn’t been burned – or even killed.
Other problems had beset the film including having to change its original title, “The Passion”, after film and TV company Miramax said this was the title of one of its own projects – an epic based on a novel by Jeanette Winterson. However, it’s the lightning strikes that have stuck in most people’s memory.
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