Sunday, November 15, 2009

Russian Film Week ’09: The Miracle

It is 1956 and Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign is under way. Religion is still strictly verboten though, which is why the authorities of provincial Russian town are so alarmed when a genuine miracle occurs in their midst. Both religious and secular faiths are tested in Aleksandr Proshkin’s The Miracle, which screens during the 2009 Russian Film Week in New York City.

Based on an incident known as “The Standing of Zoya,” the miracle in question happens to a quite unlikely subject. Zoya is a dogmatic Young Communist and an ardent atheist, who forces her long suffering mother to remove all her icons, except for St. Nicholas. When her lover is a no-show for her birthday party, Zoya grabs St. Nicholas to serve as her ironic slow dance partner. In a mysterious flash of light, Zoya is suddenly transformed into an immovable chisel-breaking statue.

As Miracle makes crystal clear, there were definite limits to Khrushchev’s liberalization. In no way would the Communist Party tolerate any form of religious revival inspired by Zoya. At first, an alcoholic reporter is dispatched to debunk the story. Unfortunately, the problem with degenerate journalists is that they recognize when they are being played. Overtures are then made to an Orthodox priest to discourage miraculous thinking amongst his remaining flock. Eventually, Khrushchev himself tackles the situation personally when his plane is forced to make an emergency landing at the nearby military airfield.

Miracle has a great deal of both faith and skepticism. Frankly, it does not present an especially flattering portrait of Russian Orthodox clergy. Yet the miracle is presented matter-of-factly, without any did-it-or-didn’t hedging after the fact. Miracle also acts as a corrective to any misinformed romanticism of the Communist era. Even during Khrushchev’s Thaw, pervasive propaganda and religious persecution were firmly established Communist policy.

Nicely balancing dissipation and charm, Konstantin Khabensky hits the right notes as Nikolai Artemyev, the appropriately jaded journalist. Indeed, the scenes involving his intrigues are particularly compelling. Conversely, the priest played by Viktor Shamirov never feels like a fully flesh-and-blood character.

Thaw or no thaw, there was still a climate of fear in 1956 Russia, which is nice reflected on screen. Father and son cinematographers Gennady and Alexander Karyuk capture both the bleakness of Zoya’s industrial backwater village as well as the ominously austere buildings housing the Party bureaucracies. While much of Miracle is allegorical, Proshkin keeps the drama tightly focused and well grounded the realities of Khrushchev-era Russia.

Echoing Arthur Koestler, Miracle shows the failure of the god of Communism, as well as the shortcomings of human nature in general. It is a challenging film that deserves an international audience. An excellent representative of Russian cinema, Miracle screens again today (11/15) and next Sunday (11/22) at the Millennium Theater in Brighton Beach.