June 9, 2010

About Aleksandr Proshkin's "The Miracle"

Director: Aleksandr Proshkin

Writer: Yuri Arabov

Konstantin Khabensky
Polina Kutepova
Sergei Makovetsky
Maria Burova
Vitaly Kishchenko
Alexander Potapov
Viktor Shamirov

Russia, 2009, 100 min.

Director Aleksandr Proshkin has built his reputation on the filming of literary adaptations, and The Miracle, based on a true story, is one of a piece, even though “all names and characters have been altered,” as we learn at the end of the film. The facts are these: in 1956 in Samara, Zoia Karnaukhova was celebrating New Years despite having been jilted by her lover. Wanting a partner, she picked up an icon of St. Nicholas and began to dance, only to freeze mid-turn. She remained immobile until Easter, standing 128 days before she revived, only to live out the rest of her life in an insane asylum. Needless to say, this event proved problematic for the atheist Soviet state, which primarily sought to silence the miracle by carefully controlling access to the affected girl. However, news travels quickly in a small town, and news such as that could not be contained, and an official party line had to be adopted and an appropriate scientific explanation found.

The film follows the facts, more or less, as Zoia is now Tat'iana (Maria Burova), and Samara is now Grechansk, a typically and predictably grimy industrial town at the back of beyond, which the inhabitants loathe as much as the visitors from Moscow. The film opens as Tat'iana prepares for her twenty-first birthday party, which she hopes her lover, Nikolai (Konstanin Khabenskii), will attend. In preparation, she removes all the icons from the house, leaving only St. Nicholas, in memory of her lover. When Nikolai does not appear at the party, Tat'iana grabs the saint’s icon as a stand-in, and promptly freezes, still holding the icon. As no Proshkin film would be complete without the bitter tears and wailing of an old peasant woman, Tat'iana’s mother (Olga Lapshina) loudly laments her daughter’s fate before she throws herself under a train.

While the miracle itself happens within the first fourteen minutes, the remainder of the film is structured around the responses of various people associated with the miracle, or who come into contact with it for one reason or another. Shortly after Tat'iana freezes, journalist Nikolai Artem'ev is dispatched to investigate. As it turns out, he is, in fact, the same Nikolai who stood up Tatiana at her party. Nikolai cuts a rather pathetic figure: a once talented poet, he now works for a newspaper writing articles about the production of dairy products and copes with his wife by womanizing. We see the intimacies of their daily life, both before and after his trip to Grechansk, which she resents, knowing he has another woman there. Upon arrival, Nikolai is introduced to Kondrashev (Sergei Makovetskii), the KGB officer in charge of Religious Affairs. Kondrashev leads Nikolai to “Tat'iana,” who has miraculously revived and is now in perfect health and able to laugh about her strange experience. Nikolai, however, has intimate knowledge of the girl herself and immediately spots the fake the state is trying to sell. Beginning to dig a little deeper, he enlists the aid of a buddy in the KGB to get him into the house where Tat'iana stands frozen, covered in cobwebs and mold. The sight is so shocking, Nikolai runs all the way home, falling back on science to help him make sense of what he has seen, finally concluding that it is a “major gross motor dysfunction with full sensory deprivation.” Nikolai’s humor and cynicism lent a certain energy to the film, and his departure slows the pace remarkably.

After the reaction of the journalist, comes the response of the local priest, Father Andrei (Viktor Shamirov). A solemn and intimidating family man, Father Andrei is under pressure from Kondrashev to denounce the recent event and state that it in no way constitutes a miracle, or his church will be closed and turned into a cinema. Realizing this is a battle he cannot win (despite the general cultural loosening of the Thaw, the Moscow patriarchate still answers directly to the state), Father Andrei capitulates. When confronted with the by now even more grotesque looking Tat'iana, his response is similar to that of Nikolai: to flee as far and as fast as possible.

In order to bring some kind of conclusion and drama to this otherwise slow and tepid tale, scriptwriter Iurii Arabov adds a completely fictional dues ex machina, in which Nikita Khrushchev (Aleksandr Potapov) himself descends from above (a forced emergency landing, but nevertheless…) to clear up this miracle business once and for all. Khrushchev brooks no nonsense with the priest and the archdeacon, who has also come to investigate the miracle, and takes a number of steps to wake the girl, one of which ultimately revives her. He seems to be the only one unaffected by the strange event.

The Miracle won the special jury prize at the Moscow International Film Festival 2009, and much of the writing about it, for better or for worse, has focused on the religious themes. Some locate the film in a series of other pro-Orthodox films, such as Pavel Lungin’s Tsar and The Island, while others see the message as more ambiguous: Father Andrei is one of the least palatable figures in a fairly unsympathetic ensemble. Although we are meant to understand that the title refers to Tat'iana’s freezing and unfreezing, the coda puts a different spin things as Tat'iana is elevated from whore to holy fool, a suffering innocent. Ultimately then, the film centers around the issue of faith: whether one believes or not, and whether one can believe when actually confronted with the inexplicable.

Aleksandr Proshkin (1940- ):

Aleksandr Proshkin was born in 1940 in Leningrad. After graduating from the acting department at the Leningrad State Institute of Theater, Music, and Film in 1961, and from the directing department at Gosteleradio in 1968, Proshkin worked as a director and editor of literary and dramatic programming for television. During this time, he was responsible for more than thirty television films and specials, of which the bio-pic Mikhailo Lomonosov catapulted him to fame in 1984. His 1988 film, Cold Summer of 1953, brought his first international attention. Although some of Proshkin’s latest films have been literary adaptations (The Captain’s Daughter, Doctor Zhivago, Live and Remember), Miracle is both an intriguing continuation of and deviation from this trend.


For the true story that inspired the movie, see: A Strange Miracle of Saint Nicholas in 1956

To see the film, see: Aleksandr Proshkin's "The Miracle" (2009)