Variations on the Miracle
Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López
1. Lightning in a Bottle (Adrian Martin)
In Terrence Malick’s war film The Thin Red Line (1998), there is an image that no viewer can ever
forget: as soldiers (engaging in the Battle of Guadalcanal of 1942 and 1943)
lay low in a file within the grass, both the wind and the light change,
sweeping across the field and transforming the scene in a way that no director
could have premeditated or staged, and that no post-production team could have credibly
faked. A miracle of nature in all its unpredictability – the kind that
sometimes arrives when (as Jean Renoir legendarily advised) you “leave a door
open for chance to enter”. Commentators of a mystical bent go so far as to impute
to this “sublime event” in The
Thin Red Line a “sign of grace or guardianship from above” (1) – and an
index of the director’s own deeply spiritual faith. The wind blows where it
At the other end of the creative spectrum, we find a grumpy, misanthrophic atheist: Jean Eustache, director of the bleak and relentless post-Nouvelle Vague classic, The Mother and the Whore (1973). In the extraordinary, tell-all memoir of her fraught time spent with this tortured filmmaker (titled, plainly enough, My Eustache Years), Evane Hanska relates the strange fact of this man’s anguish whenever he watched ocean waves in a movie, standing up to shout at the screen: “I don’t like shots of the sea because the sea doesn’t move the way I want it to!” (2) Eustache – we can safely say – was on the side of a cinema of control, along with Fritz Lang and Stanley Kubrick.
All filmmakers collaborate with – and struggle against – the weather. Raging against the dying of the light, trusting in the Bureau of Meteorology’s forecast, hoping that the seasons follow their natural course … It can easily become a pure matter of blind faith. Faith in either of the major Christian deities on either side of the divine fence, as it happens, judging from the published accounts of directors and their chief crew members. Famed cinematographer Néstor Almendros (who worked with Malick on Days of Heaven ) describes his collaboration with Éric Rohmer on My Night at Maud’s (1969) in the following way: “Some people think Rohmer is in league with the Devil. Months before, he had scheduled the exact date for shooting the final scene where it snows; that day, right on time, it snowed, and the snow lasted all day long, not just a few minutes”. (3)
By contrast, the impeccably leftist Italian director Ermanno Olmi confesses – a little shamefacedly – a “Catholic and peasant” approach to such problems, as he explained in relation to his Sicilian-set I fidanzati (1962):
Here I was, needing a storm when there couldn’t be any, so I started up an internal dialogue with my grandmother, who was no longer alive. I kept praying for her to help me, and I went slowly on the retakes in the hope that she would. When I finally got to sleep, I had this crazy dream: I was shooting my last scene in a downpour so terrific that it was actually painful; even the trees were bending under it. I went on filming, while my grandmother looked on, happy and satisfied. Imagine how I felt when I awoke from that vivid dream to see an utterly clear sky. Nevertheless, I told everyone to get ready for work because it would rain that day. They looked at me as if I were crazy. But by afternoon a storm came. Suddenly I found myself exactly as I had been in the dream, shooting in a downpour, with trees swaying all around me.
Filmmakers from Maurice Pialat to Brian De Palma have all used the same refrain: what they seek is lightning in a bottle, that magical moment when not only every envisioned element clicks into place, but also something unforeseen intervenes, energising the recorded event and taking it to another level altogether. Catherine Breillat recounts an incident with no rational explanation that occurred during the shooting of her controversial Romance (1999): the tender instant, within a scene of sadomasochistic bondage, when Robert (François Berléand) picked up Marie (Caroline Ducey) – no stunt body-doubles here – and carried her, as if she were light as a feather, across the room. Such inadvertent sorcery recalls the perception of actor-monologist Spalding Gray who, during the filming of The Killing Fields (1984), imagined he could step out of the helicopter he was flying in and simply float on air, since “the camera eroticizes the space it points at. It protects you like Colgate Guard-All”. (4)
Many filmmakers stumble, however, when it comes to staging the miracle – not capturing it in some happy, on-set accident, but recreating the crucial “divine” intervention-incident pre-written in the screenplay. How to make believably miraculous what is so evidently preordained and prefabricated? The celebrated Spanish critic José Luis Guarner (1937-1993) remarked in the 1970s: “A fundamental contradiction in cinema justifies our asking whether the beauty of this world is the work of God, or quite simply the result of the director’s art”. (5) Roberto Rossellini – the artist to whom Guarner was primarily referring – returned to the crux of this problem time and again. He did so especially once Italy’s prime neo-realist period started winding down in the late 1940s, and he felt free to explore his religious interests all the way to recreating the miracles performed by Jesus (The Messiah, 1975).
Rossellini was canny and worldly enough to allow into his stories two diametrically opposed interpretations of the at least some of the miracles he dramatised. “Clearly”, observed Alain Philippon of his work, “the greatest films are those that are equivocal, that program the undecidable”. (6) In the episode of L’amore (1948) that is explicitly titled “Il Miracolo”, Nanni (Anna Magnani) believes that the wanderer (played by the tale’s co-writer, Federico Fellini) who seduces and impregnates her is Saint Joseph – and that, therefore, the child who results from this union is divine. While the film leaves its ending (a vision of mother and baby in an empty church) open and ambiguous, we have already been treated to a more knowing, cynical apprehension of the motives of her handy male benefactor – and that perspective was enough to bring down on Rossellini, in 1950s America, a charge of sacrilegious blasphemy from the National Legion of Decency. The Spanish director Bigas Luna recreated this dual-perspectival treatment of a miracle in Reborn (1981), in which Dennis Hopper as a phony preacher finds himself providing the seed for what turns out to be the Second Coming of Christ!
More generally, however, Rossellini depended, within his mise en
scène, on the artful trick of a certain opacity – he counted on our
inability to exactly pinpoint what was happening (or had just happened) when
Ingrid Bergman spends her night wandering, agonising and sleeping on the
volcanic mountain of Stromboli (1950); or when the jaded lovers (Bergman
again, alongside George Sanders) find their marital bond suddenly reignited
after thave have been separated in the midst of a tumultuous crowd (that is
racing, in fact, toward the evidence of a nearby miracle of a severely disabled
woman now walking) in Voyage
in Italy (1953).
This was, equally, Robert Bresson’s approach: the saintly, redemptive conversions of his all-too-human heroes (such as at the end Pickpocket, 1959) depend not on any discernible, too-visible instant of divine intervention, but on something mysterious that has seemingly slipped in, invisibly, between the mundane lines, gestures and actions of his characters … And this method takes us back to the wind of which Malick’s camera captured the trace in The Thin Red Line – or that elusive lightning in the bottle. Indeed, Bresson’s prison film A Man Escaped (1956) carries the Biblical phrase (from John 3:8) translated in its more ornate form as “the wind bloweth where it listeth” as its subtitle.
The handy role of unseen chance allows these filmmakers to dexterously fudge the issue of verifying – or not – the existence of miracles. For if you are not predisposed to believe in miracles, well then, it’s OK, because you didn’t actually see one faked anywhere in the movie; and if you are so predisposed, you have received further verification of the secret, mysterious workings of a “hidden God” (the title of a reverential MoMA anthology of 2003 devoted to “film and faith”). (7)
In his classic Ordet (1955), Carl Dreyer approached the problem of showing a miracle – in this case, the miracle of a dead woman’s resurrection, which we plainly see occur within the space-time of a single shot – not from the angle of faith (as is often erroneously assumed by commentators) but from the angle of rationalist science. Even though a religious madman/visionary (Prebon Lerdoff Rye as Johannes), who happens to believe he is Christ, is placed at the heart of the fiction, Dreyer’s own interpretation of the event was not mystical. In a letter sent to Jonas Mekas’ magazine Film Culture in 1956, the director (quoting a radio interview he gave in 1954) referred to the “new science” that, post-Einstein’s theory of relativity, had revealed a fourth dimension (time) and even a “fifth dimension – the dimension of the psychic that proves that it is possible to live events that have not yet happened. New perspectives are opened up that make one realise an intimate connection between exact science and intuitive religion. The new science brings us toward a more intimate understanding of the divine power and is even beginning to give us a natural explanation to things of the supernatural”. (8)
For his part, Rohmer geared several of his filmic fictions to special times of the day or night: the burst of colour that appears as the sun sets in The Green Ray (1986), or the eerie patch of complete silence that occurs just before dawn in “The Blue Hour”, an episode of Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1987). These works precisely engineer an intrusion of the real – and the seemingly magical – into the real-time unfoldings of their stories. Yet, even here, doubt gnaws at the edges of the image or soundtrack: despite Rohmer’s ultra low budget and his immaculately unadorned, realist manner of filming (on 16 millimetre), couldn’t he have added that dash of sunset colour (as, indeed, some have claimed), or remixed the ambience of dawn? (9) It will take a more conceptual artist like Tacita Dean – laboriously foregrounding the materiality of both film strip and projection apparatus within her gallery installations – to ground the phenomenal reality of that green ray in an instalment of her The Sun Quartet (2001).
Even the supremely assured Rohmer must have felt some anxiety, as his camera and tape recorder rolled, as to whether the natural world would behave, on these pivotal occasions, as he predicted it would, right on cue. That anxiety is surely the common condition of documentary filmmakers everywhere – the vast majority of whom hope and pray for something unplanned to happen as they wait, lens open and sound running, while they stalk their appointed subject. In a TV series such as Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s epic The Staircase (2004-2018), the crew takes pains to be present for every decisive phone call, every court pronouncement, every crucial family discussion. Yet, on other projects, the moment of truth can easily occur between bouts of filming, or it kicks off the story before a director even has the good sense (or good luck) to arrive in situ.
Such is the case with the remarkable, recently rediscovered Italian film Anna (1975), based on the chance encounter of the makers (avant-garde artist Alberto Grifi and actor Massimo Sarchielli) with a wiry street urchin named Anna (her surname was only much later revealed as Azzori), whom they take into their radical collective – and, while almost everything that unfolds is caught (agonisingly) on Portapak video, that initial, random meeting has to be self-consciously restaged by the participants, in order for the film to have a proper beginning. The initial bolt of lightning has been missed – no camera was around to capture it – and so it has to be artificially rebottled.
Back in the realm of fiction, Abel Ferrara has long been drawn to narratives that discover ultimate spiritual redemption, and even the stuff of miracles, within the overwhelmingly corrupt and sordid social worlds portrayed in Bad Lieutenant (1992) or Mary (2005). For the raucous, deliberately shambolic comedy Go Go Tales (2007) – Ferrara accurately described it as a mix of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and the TV sitcom Cheers – a miracle happens within a milieu defined by nothing but money, greed, gambling and debt.
Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe) is set to lose everything – especially his beloved Paradise strip club – because he has misplaced the winning lottery ticket that he spends most of the film desperately, frantically searching for. When it comes to the crunch, Ferrara frames a long take worthy of Rossellini or Dreyer: the camera closes in on Ray for two-and-ahalf minutes straight, at the rock bottom of poverty, as he is besieged by all his debtors, and he vainly but poignantly protests: “Do you wanna kill my dream? Do you wanna take my heart?” And then, suddenly, Ray stops talking, an extraordinary thought crosses his mind, and he silently reaches into his “lucky jacket” pocket … where the elusive ticket has been all along, hiding in plain sight. This particular “hidden God” has at last been coaxed out of its hiding place.
2. Mixed Blessings (Cristina Álvarez López)
At the start of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), the rage and pain of the heroine (Sissy Spacek as Carrie) unleash strange powers. In the school locker room, after she’s been brutally humiliated by her schoolmates and slapped by her teacher, a light fixture explodes. Later, when the principal keeps pronouncing her name incorrectly, an ashtray takes flight and crashes on the floor. Walking back home, Carrie crosses paths with a kid who cruelly mocks her, and suddenly the boy’s bicycle veers and topples over. Confused by her own powers, Carrie visits the library in search of an explanation; she consults an index card labelled “Miracle”. However, when Carrie’s fanatically religious mother (Piper Laurie) learns about these abilities, she immediately identifies the Devil’s hand.
The line that separates God and the Devil is slippery. The Bible is full of warnings about this: temptation comes in disguise, as the wolf in sheep’s clothing; evil wears sensual masks and argues with persuasive logic. With his enchanting voice and black magic, the Devil can fool human souls. He can perform actions that defy the laws of nature and create fabrications that look like miracles. But if our senses won’t help us to distinguish the supernatural acts of God from the tricks of the Devil, how can we recognise a miracle?
In one of the stories that form Marco Bellocchio’s diptych Blood of My Blood (2015), the novice Benedetta (Lidiya Liberman) is accused of having driven her confessor to suicide. In the presence of the deceased’s brother (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio as both siblings), a group of priests submits the woman to a series of arduous trials, hoping to demonstrate that she is in league with the Devil. At one point, Benedetta is thrown into a river, bound in chains. If she resurfaces (as one priest explains), this will be proof that she is associated with the malign force; if she remains at the bottom of the river (perhaps dying in the process), her innocence will be confirmed. This ordeal was standard practice in the witch-hunts that proliferated during the 17th century – the era in which Bellocchio’s story is set. Intriguingly, however, the same practice was used in ancient Mesopotamia, but decoded in reverse: floating was considered proof of innocence and drowning proof of guilt.
The miracle is neither self-evident nor self-explanatory. The examples from Blood of My Blood and Carrie attest to the ambivalent evaluation, the fluctuating assignation of meaning that the same acts can receive. The miracle always needs to be interpreted, but the validity of this interpretation is monopolised by the power structures – family, Church, law – of any given society. The miracle becomes a malleable device bent to the dominant rhetoric, an asset that allows the representatives of authoritarian institutions to retain and administer their power.
Krzysztof Kieślowski was a filmmaker fascinated by paradoxes of the miraculous. The initial chapter of his TV series Dekalog (1989) dramatises the first of the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”). Built around twelve-year-old Pawel (Wojciech Klata), the film tackles the problem of faith and idolatry. Pawel’s father, Krzysztof (Henryk Baranowski), is a university professor who only believes in what can be measured, deduced and calculated – a sceptical man who educates his son in science and reason. Pawel’s aunt Irena (Maja Komorowska), in contrast, shows the boy photos of the Pope and introduces him to the idea of God as Love.
At Christmas, Krzysztof gives Pawel a pair of skates. Father and son together calculate the pressure of the lake’s ice, concluding that it is safe for the child to skate there. The next day, Krzystof is writing at his desk when, suddenly, a blue stain spreads like water across a sheet of paper. Krzysztof is struck by this phenomenon; it takes him some time to realise that his ink jar has broken. It is a heavily pregnant moment, imbued with a foreshadowing spell; soon, he learns that the ice has broken while Pawel and other children were skating.
The community congregates at the lake as the rescue
team searches for the missing. When several corpses are recovered, everybody
kneels, except Krzysztof. But the episode ends with a striking passage:
Krzysztof walks into a church under construction and, full of anger, destroys
its altar. The wax of a candle spills onto a painting of the Black Madonna of
Częstochowa, causing tears to appear in the icon’s eyes. Finally, in a
reversal of the omen symbolised by the broken jar, Krzysztof proceeds to
baptize himself with a round piece of ice – a miniature of the lake in which
his son died. This brutal, bitter conclusion gives us the miracle of an
impossible religious conversion at the cost of an unfathomable tragedy to which
reason cannot respond.
In popular imagination, miracles are often regarded as positive acts of divine intervention. But some films are especially keen on depicting the miracle as a less straightforward phenomenon, concentrating on its dark implications, perverse inner workings and cruel consequences. In Teorema (1968), Pier Paolo Pasolini exposes the shock experienced by a bourgeois family upon the arrival of a mysterious visitor (played by Terence Stamp). This figure carries out an almost passive, effortless seduction on every family member in turn. They give themselves totally to this stranger, entranced by his carnal and ethereal presence, in the process discovering hidden aspects of themselves. But, suddenly, the day of parting arrives, and all that is left is an immense void that cannot be filled.
In the film’s second half, the characters cling onto the traces and memories, or throw themselves into frantic activities, senseless re-enactments, fruitless searches. They are consumed by anxiety, depression, madness and paralysis. Pasolini’s dissection of this bourgeois stagnation of a family’s annihilation is mediated by a harsh and cruel God. This divine messenger – or exterminating angel – performs a revelatory miracle: his visitation does, indeed, open the eyes of the blind and the hearts of the soulless. But this glimpse of enlightenment is followed by an inhospitable, inhuman, boundless desert—a desert that renders language useless, closes bodies upon themselves, suffocates every scream of despair.
In Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), psychologist Kris Kelvin is sent to a space station floating above a planet covered by an immense ocean. When he arrives, he finds the station haunted by odd presences that torment the remaining scientists. Having been subjected to radiation, the ocean has responded by extracting “islands of memory” from the crew’s unconscious, creating human replicas that wander around the station like unwanted ghosts. These phantoms hide in closets and run through corridors. We see their fleeting traces: a ball rolling along the floor, ringing bells, a dwarf storming a door.
At night, Kris is visited by his wife, Hari, who
committed suicide ten years previously. The miracle of resurrection is,
however, tainted. It is not imbued with grace and it provides no relief. This
replica is an overwhelming presence that demands to be loved. She displays
imperfections, like glitches in a photograph. She is not a whole, rounded being
but a projection of Kris’s unconscious: she cannot remember her own face, her
memory has holes, she knows of herself only what Kris knows. When she appears
for the first time, she is barefoot and wears the same dress we have seen in a
photograph of the original Hari. But when Kris tries to undress her, he
realises the garment lacks an opening. And, on her arm, she retains the mark of
Hari’s lethal, suicidal injection.
No matter how many times he disposes of her, or she tries to kills herself, the ocean always provides another copy. This blessing of resurrection becomes the curse of a serial, eternal return that confronts Kris with the horror and limits of his own subjectivity, making him relive the guilt over and responsibility for Hari’s suicide.
If, in Solaris, Tarkovsky dealt with an ocean that is variously referred as a “brain”, a “thinking substance” and a “monster”, in Stalker (1979) he presents the journey of three men across the Zone – a complex ecosystem defying physical laws – in search of the Room that grants the desires of those who reach it. At one point, the story of Porcupine is told: this man arrived at the Room and asked it for the return of his dead brother, but instead received a great deal of money. Later, he killed himself. The Room, deduces one of the characters, does not grant you the wishes you consciously demand, but rather your innermost, hidden desires.
Much of the work by Emmanuel Carrère – who, as it happens, wrote a fascinating review of Stalker – is born in this discrepancy between expectancy and outcome, between what is asked and what is given. His documentary Return to Kotelnitch (2003) is part of an interdisciplinary triptych comprising cinema, TV reportage (Le soldat perdut, 2002) and literature (A Russian Novel, 2007). Carrère first travelled to Kotelnitch – a Russian village 800 kilometres from Moscow – to shoot a TV documentary about the case of a Hungarian soldier who disappeared in 1944, after having been captured by the Red Army, and was found 56 years later in Kotelnitch’s psychiatric hospital. The story fascinated Carrère because it bore similarities with the fate of his own grandfather. During the shooting, the crew met Sacha Kamorkin, local chief of the FSB (formerly the KGB), and his girlfriend, Ania. The “novelistic” air of the couple attracted Carrère; while Sacha was extremely paranoid, always reluctant to be filmed, Ania was intriguing, prone to inventing tall tales.
Carrère grew up fantasising that he could perform miracles – devilish miracles. Like the child in Luis Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), who is convinced that a music box grants him the wish to kill his governess, Carrère spent his childhood believing the accidental death of his nanny had been, in fact, provoked by him. Later on, he became a novelist who asked himself whether, in order to write, he would always need to murder somebody. In A Russian Novel, he is convinced that by revealing the secret of the mother he will kill her. This secret involves the story of Carrère’s grandfather, Georges Zurabishvilli, a Nazi sympathiser who, during the occupation, worked as a translator for the Germans. After the liberation, Zurabishvilli was detained by the French forces. Carrère’s mother was 15 when she saw him for the last time, before he disappeared.
Half a year after his first trip to Kotelnitch, Carrère decided to go back. He wanted to film a documentary about village life. By then, Sacha and Ania had married and had a baby, Lev. Carrère and his team stayed in Kotelnitch during June 2002; they had no clear idea of how to proceed. They spent their days filming people and landscapes, hoping for something unexpected to happen, waiting for the miracle that would give direction to their movie. And something did indeed happen. During the autumn of 2002, Carrère was back in France, trying to edit the film. Then he received a phone call from his cameraman: Ania and Lev had been brutally killed by a madman.
Return to Kotelnitch contains the traces of a frustrated documentary – but, after the tragic event that ended Ania’s and Lev’s lives, the film project was resurrected from its ashes. Carrère first went to Kotelnitch fantasising about the symbolic death of his mother; now he had to return, for a third time, to grieve two deaths that were all too real – not just unexpected, but also unimaginable. Return to Kotelnitch became the diary of a journey that is a meditation on the impossibility of escaping our own phantoms. When Carrère was assembling finance, he presented a synopsis: “To discover what the film tells only in the editing stage: when what happens to us becomes what has happened to us”. Sometimes miracles are a twisted, perverse response to a prayer. And as Saint Teresa claimed: “There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered ones”.
1. This phrase appears (with careful qualification) in Trevor Mowchun, “The Site of Nature: Exteriority and Overexposure in The Thin Red Line”, Film International, 17 March 2015. back
2. Evane Hanska, Mes années Eustache (Paris: Flammarion, 2001), p. 229 (translation AM). She adds: “I believe he could no longer draw the distinction between fiction and reality”. back
3. Quoted in Tom Paulus, “One for the Ages: The Classical Cinema of Éric Rohmer”, Zomer Film College 2018 (catalogue), Antwerp July 2018, pp. 13-14. back
4. Spalding Gray, Swimming to Cambodia (Theatre Communications Group, 1985), p. 54. back
5. José Luis Guarner (trans. Elisabeth Cameron), Roberto Rossellini (London: Studio Vista, 1970), p. 44 (translation amended). back
6. Alain Philippon, “Beauté sombre”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 410 (“Rossellini Today” dossier, July-August 1988), p. 20 (translation AM). back
8. “Metaphysic of Ordet: A Letter from Carl Th. Dreyer”, reprinted in P. Adams Sitney (ed.), Film Culture Reader (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000), p. 28. back
9. Note, however, the testimony of Philippe Demard, the cinematographer especially hired by Rohmer to capture this famous shot, concerning its phenomenal reality – treated only by slow motion, and in the grading, to enhance what was actually filmed. “The vraie histoire du ‘rayon vert’”, Libération, 14 March 1998. Demard is replying to a previous piece in the same magazine by Gérard Lefort & Olivier Seguret, “La magie avant la technologie”, 7 March 1998. Demard notes that “this debate [over the moment’s veracity] is at the centre of the Rohmerian problematic: a perpetual questioning on feelings and their appearance, on subjective and objective; it is also metaphoric of the heroine’s love problem – the heart’s illusion or eternal truth?” Demard asks: why did the filmmaker insist on capturing a green ray? “For reasons of aesthetic coherence, certainly, but also to have his own say on the debate opened up by Jules Verne’s book, by which his film was freely inspired: green ray, real effect of refraction or optical illusion prompted by retinal perception?” (translation AM). Thanks to Paulo Soares for bringing this important text to my attention. back
© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin July 2018