Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Sunday Matinee: Miraculous Virgin


Miraculous Virgin, Czechoslovakia, 1967, dir. Stefan Uher, starring Jolanta Umecka, Ladislav Mrkvicka, Otakar Janda

Story: As bombs fall from the sky, a beautiful young woman wanders into the lives of several young artists and a melancholy middle-aged sculptor. They treat her as their muse. Yet before long, she is overwhelmed by their aggressive attention, and they are frustrated by her aloof resistance to their overtures.

An interesting element of the various European New Waves is their relationship with the recent past - namely World War II. I've often felt that the sixties were imbued with the displaced spirit of the forties, and that the cultural explosion and political upheaval of the era may have been impossible without the misery, death, and displacement of two decades before. This is not to say that the war played a huge role in cultural artifacts of the time; in some ways, the influence was indirect, in others displaced. In certain countries, for example the United States or Britain, the war was considered property of the older squares, and youthful revelers, rebels, or activists either satirized or ignored the earlier era's sensibility. Elsewhere, the war haunted the cinema without necessarily being foregrounded: in France, it popped up in the films of Alain Resnais (about ten years older than most of the other New Wavers); in Italy and Japan, a sense of collective guilt fed into the bitterness with which young filmmakers scorned the societies of the past. Whatever the country, New Wavers tended to be born around the same time period, from the late twenties to the mid-thirties (some a bit younger in Italy, some a bit older in Britain), making them teenagers at the time of the war. This meant that most did not serve as soldiers, and would only have experienced the turmoil of the time to the extent that war came to them.

Czechoslovakia, in some ways, was spared the most brutal aspects of the war. Unlike Britain, Poland, Germany, or Japan it was not subjected to substantial aerial bombardment, one reason that Prague still remains the glistening city of the past, architectural jewels from earlier centuries still dominating its skyline. Yet this was precisely because the Germans didn't need to bomb the Czechs - the country had already been handed over to Hitler by allies eager to appease, and Czechoslovakia was given the dubious honor of enduring Nazi occupation from months before World War II even began. Following the war, unlike the French, Italian, or British, the nation was not able to stumble towards a new sense of independence or democracy; it was occupied by the Soviets, democratic officials were killed, and a Stalinist dictatorship was installed within several years of the "victory." In some ways, for Czechoslovakia, the war never ended. No wonder then, that World War II features so prominently in the Czechoslovakian New Wave (and here it makes sense to use the country's full name, as Miraculous Virgin was directed by a Slovakian, not a Czech). Some of its most famous films - including the Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains and The Shop on Main Street - take place during the war. The best of these (and the least well-known) is the phenomenal Miraculous Virgin - while the setting is ambiguous, the film is tormented by a sense of occupation, persecution, death, and collaboration. Its themes are universal, but the historical experience of this beleaguered nation is the context out of which Miraculous Virgin was born.

There is little in the film itself to establish the period (indeed, one could venture the statement that it exists outside of a specific historical context, despite the date of the source story). No swastikas are in sight, the officials mostly seem to be national, and politics or historical events are rarely alluded to. The characters are concerned with their own imaginative and artistic experiences. Yet there are bomb shelters and military checkpoints - a political official commissions a monumental sculpture of himself in the totalitarian fashion, and the heroine is concerned with finding the proper documentation so that she is not deported as a (Jewish?) "foreigner." Indeed, the fantastical, romantic elements seem to be, among other things, modes of escape - we are first dipped in the subjective universe of artist-hero Tristan (Ladislav Mrkvicka) as air raid sirens sound out, so his ennui has a source beyond the nameless, and perhaps chic, alienation of bohemians since time immemorial. Annabella (Jolanta Umecka), despite variously climbing a mountain, sprawling lasciviously across a professor's desk, and floating on a divan in the sky, is the most grounded of all the characters. She is conscious of but surprised by her effect on men, and she's agonized by the practical, if not spiritual, power they hold over her. Such power is fatal when a marriage proposal can save a woman from deportation, and her refusal could result in incarceration. Meanwhile, Raven (Otakar Janda) is a middle-aged sculptor whose beleaguered status reflects his country's. Instead of expressing himself freely, he is forced to channel his energies through morbid professional work (creating death masks) as well as compromised commissions (furious that the politician he's memorializing wants to be made more heroic, he vows to sculpt hairs inside the giant figure's nose).

If these characterizations make Miraculous Virgin sound conventional, with a straightforward plot and definable character arcs, the film is anything but - based on a 1944 story by Dominik Tatarka, a Slovak surrealist, it is more dreamlike than dramatic. Indeed Miraculous Virgin belongs to another tribe of Czechoslovakian films, aside from its association with the "war movies." It is one of several New Wave works which engage in surreal subversion: of film form, of material reality, of political authority. As Peter Hames writes in Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition, "If one were to focus on a year that re-established links with the avant-garde or surrealist traditions, it would be 1966 with [Report on] The Party and the Guests, Daisies, Martyrs of Love, Closely Watched Trains and, in Slovakia, Miraculous Virgin." Surrealism, however, comes in many flavors. Unlike Party and the Guests (straightforward in its narrative structure yet Kafkaesque in its details) or Daisies (aggressively chainsawing stylistic and storytelling conventions alike) Miraculous Virgin is gorgeously fluid, its surrealism expressed most acutely not in the screenplay or the editing, but in the camerawork. Eschewing the documentary instincts of a Milos Forman or the collage sensibilities of a Vera Chytilova, director Stefan Uher chooses to reveal and explore his world through gliding dollies and restless pans. The effect is one of constant astonishment, and the shots are like minor miracles, whether they're pushing in on the feathered hand of a mysterious figure, rising up alongside a scarf gracefully ascending through the air, or pulling out to reveal the magical appearance of a lion, growling and pawing at the tantalizing Annabella.

Like Daisies, Miraculous Virgin's mood shifts from restlessness to euphoria to discomfort to disillusionment (both films mirror the arc of the Czech New Wave, the Prague Spring, and the sixties youth culture as a whole). Here the transformation is more subtle, deeper and richer than in Chytilova's work (the power of which lies in its bold angularity). We are immersed in its universe as if in a dream, a melancholy yet deeply romantic reverie, which slowly and slyly goes sour until it concludes with a sense of tragic fatalism. The tragedy is both Annabella's and the male characters'. For them, she is the representation of the muse and their eventual impatience with her inscrutable flirtations reflects their own struggles with creativity and independence, their own inability to taste true freedom for any sustained stretch of time or to drink it deeply when they do. There's a touching sequence in which a timid young poet invites Annabella into his childlike bedroom. She lies in his bed while he lingers by her side, trembling at her aloof kindness and your heart goes out to the poor fellow, who embodies every unrequited crush since such blissful agonies first planted their seeds in the human soul. Yet you feel sorry for Annabella too - she is not simply a muse, not a mere object; even in the fantastical, surrealist solar system Uher sets in motion, she has a tangible reality and her own needs and desires. She is initially charmed, eventually perplexed, and ultimately depressed by the inability of the men to see past her sphinxlike charms and offer genuine sympathy or understanding to a woman in need.

Raven is as deeply in love with her as anyone else in the film, but he's dignified enough to keep a distance and recognize, with resigned sorrow, his inability to ever truly capture this butterfly. As an artist wearied with age and scarred by life, he cannot sustain the naive idealism of the young students or the haughty egoism of their academic mentor. Though he too treats Annabella as a muse, he knows that the muse is by definition unattainable - all he can offer her is what awaits him too: a death mask. So Miraculous Virgin is two tragedies: that of the men, confronted by what they see as a teasing coquette, an unattainable goddess, a tantalizing muse, and that of the woman, objectified, idealized, but ultimately alone. It's a tragedy at once allegorical and human. And it's beautiful to boot - every image stirring and exciting, an immersive experience that deserves far more recognition than it has received. Reviews are hard to come by, and the film seems to receive mostly cursory mention in discussions of the country and the era. While unavailability is certainly the biggest culprit here, one's tempted to believe that the film's inscrutability plays a role. My own piece is an indication of this - I began by examining the historical context of the movie, am concluding by discussing its obscurity, and in the intervening paragraphs I explored its story development (which is probably the last thing on anyone's mind while they are watching Miraculous Virgin unfold). The film is poetry, hard to capture in prose. I saw it myself for the first time less than twenty-four hours ago, and would have to see and savor it several times before I felt ready to attempt any such transmogrification. For now, it will suffice to say that this is a great movie, one of the best films I've seen, and I'm glad I had the chance to discuss it here.


Cross-posted at Wonders in the Dark

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