Director: Stefan Uher
Screenplay: Dominik Tatarka (based on his own novel)
Starring: Jolanta Umecka, Ladislav Mrkvicka, Otakar Janda
Running Time: 96 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
From receiving a copy of The Miraculous Virgin (a.k.a. Panna zázračnica) to review I knew my ever growing love for the cinema of Czechoslovakia might come under threat. Not that it didn’t look good, but much is made in the press release of its importance in the introduction of surrealism into Czech and Slovak cinema and I’ve got a chequered past with surrealist cinema. It’s a style I love when incorporated in small or subtle doses within more traditional or realist practises, but when a film is straight up surrealist, I often struggle with it. The couple of Luis Buñuel films I’ve seen for instance haven’t done much for me. I often find surreal cinema either pretentious, boring or plain silly. So I was hesitant to approach The Miraculous Virgin. My curiosity and 100% success rate with other Czech titles won me over though so I dove into Stefan Uher’s adaptation of Dominik Tatarka’s surrealist (or nadrealist) novel.
There’s not a great deal of what you’d call plot. The film however centres around a young woman known as Anabella (Jolanta Umecka). She has an air of mystery and melancholy about her (she’s always wearing black and keeps fairly quiet) which, when matched with her beauty, means every man she meets becomes utterly besotted with her. Two men particularly drawn to her are Tristan (Ladislav Mrkvicka), a young artist who’s struggling to find his ‘inner self’ in his work, and ‘Raven’ (Otakar Janda), an older sculptor who is stuck making death masks and working on a large piece in town that is being manipulated by a government official. They follow Anabella around (Raven more figuratively so in the form of an actual raven) in the hope to curry her favour. She generally seems disinterested, although she needs papers to remain in Slovakia and realises one straight forward legal option is to marry a Slovakian man. Tristan, Raven and other suitors are aware of this so try to win her over, but once Tristan’s artist friends and some others start sticking their oar in and aggressively lusting after her, it all gets too much for Anabella.
Like all surrealist works, the creators’ intentions aren’t always clear. My interpretation was fairly literal, seeing it all as a statement on the ludicrous and aggressive reactions men have to being in love/lust and how they channel this in different ways, either through art or destruction. The film is clearly about art above anything else though through that being the occupation of all principle male characters. One contributor to a documentary included on the Blu-Ray believes it’s saying how art shouldn’t get stuck looking inward at itself, but reflect life and the world around it. Indeed the film’s denouement suggests this, but as with all surrealist works, there’s no clear answer as to what is being ‘said’. That, I guess, is the beauty of films like this, although it can also cause frustrations to more literal, ‘nuts and bolts’ viewers like myself. I imagine a greater understanding of Slovakian history and art would open up more interpretive doors too.
So I wasn’t completely enamoured with The Miraculous Virgin, particularly in the first half, as I struggled to find my own foothold. However, as the film moved on I did find myself drawn to its mysteries, much like the men in the film feel towards Anabella. It helped that I found a straightforward reading to cling to.
What also helped keep my interest was the fact that the film looks gorgeous. Everything about the cinematography, from the framing and angles to the lighting and movement is beautifully conceived and executed. The production design is artistically thought out too. Early shots in a train station and Tristan’s art exhibition are particular stand-outs. There’s some striking surrealist imagery too such as the bizarre bar Tristan comes across with a clawed bartender and seats that look like legs. A sequence where a dress on a mannequin is set on fire is evocatively presented too.
So, although I struggled initially, finding little to grasp other than the striking visuals, I eventually I found myself sucked in to this study of desire and artistic inspiration. It’s rather slow, meandering and difficult to wrap your head around at times, so those less inclined to surrealism (like me) might not fall madly in love with the film, but it’s not impenetrable and is beautiful enough to appreciate for its style alone.
The Miraculous Virgin (a.k.a. is out on 20th August on Blu-Ray in the UK (a DVD version has been out for a while too), released by Second Run. The picture and audio quality are excellent. Other than some brief grain issues in brighter spots it’s a clean, detailed and richly textured image.
A few special features are included too:
– Marked by Darkness (Pozna ení tmou, 1959) – a short film by Stefan Uher.
– The Story of ‘The Miraculous Virgin’: an all new documentary on the film, the talents behind it and its legacy, produced by the Slovak Film Institute.
– Looking for Annabella: an archival documentary on the filmmaker’s search for the titular lead.
– Booklet featuring new writing on the film by Michal Michalovi
The documentary is particularly good, offering interesting interpretations on the film as well as providing a better understanding of the context in which it was made and impact it had. The booklet does the same, possibly to an even greater extent.