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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Unnatural Wonders (originally published 9/99)

There's an old joke in the movie industry about a studio called "Miracle Pictures." Their slogan, of course, is: "If it's a great picture, it's a Miracle!" Whether or not the producers of the currently playing "Stigmata" enjoyed supernatural assistance in making their movie, it is clear that a miraculous occurrence forms the basis of the film's storyline. Specifically, Patricia Arquette's character displays, for no apparent reason, wounds that correspond exactly to the wounds suffered by Jesus on the cross.

Reports of genuine miracles continue to emerge from time to time, even in today's modern world, in which high-tech wizardry is often difficult to distinguish from the miraculous. Such reports are inevitably met with a measured skepticism, even among believers. No one wants to be taken in by a charlatan, and yet many of us cherish a belief that a benevolent hand can intervene on our behalf and would welcome hard evidence in support of that belief. In short, the existence of miracles is an emotional subject, touching upon some of our most deeply held dogmas. That, in turn, means that stories about miraculous events tend to make good drama. If you'd like to seek out some earlier treatments of the miraculous in the movies, look for these titles on home video.

"Song of Bernadette" (1943). In 1858, near the town of Lourdes in France, a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have encountered the Virgin Mary while walking alone. Bernadette said that she was instructed by Mary to dig for water near a grotto. According to Bernadette, the Blessed Virgin had promised that the water she would find there would have the power to heal those who believe. This true story formed the basis for a novel by Franz Werfel, from which this film is adapted. Jennifer Jones won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Bernadette.

"The First Legion" (1951). In one of his earliest American films, director Douglas Sirk portrays the effect of a startling healing on the priests at a Jesuit seminary. Each one seems to be undergoing his own crisis of faith, so naturally they are all profoundly touched when one of their own, an invalid priest, suddenly regains the use of his legs. The head of the seminary, Father Arnoux (Charles Boyer), is also greatly affected, and yet he can't help being skeptical. To satisfy his doubts, he does some investigating. Unfortunately, the more he learns about the circumstances surrounding the healing, the less miraculous it sounds. Just as his faith is beginning to flag, another miraculous event occurs at the seminary.

"The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima" (1952). Like "Song of Bernadette," this film is based on a true story. In 1917, three Portugese children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary near the town of Fatima. They said that Mary had told them to return to the spot on the 13th day of each month. Naturally, when word of this story got out, huge crowds of believers began assembling at the location identified by the children, each hoping for their own divine encounter. This fictionalized film version of the events at Fatima draws much of its storyline, as had "Song of Bernadette," from the scorn endured by the children who claimed to have seen the Blessed Virgin. Significantly, the source of much of this disdain, in both cases, was the church itself.

"Miracle in Rome" (1988). This film was one of a series of programs adapted from the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez for Spanish television. Based upon his story "Difficult Loves," it tells of a grieving father whose daughter had died suddenly twelve years earlier. When the body is exhumed for reburial in a new cemetery, it is discovered that no decomposition of the corpse has occurred. Interpreting this pristine preservation as a miracle, the father goes to Rome to ask that his daughter be canonized as a saint. The church, however, is unresponsive to his petition.

Most films about miracles involve on some level the frustrations of encountering unyielding skepticism from the very people who by all rights should be the most ardent believers. This is a predicament that every filmmaker knows all too well. Anyone who has ever tried to get a movie made can tell you that getting the project off the ground is in itself a...well, let's just say it's an extraordinary event.

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