The first time I started Slovak director Stefan Uher’s The Miraculous Virgin (Panna Zázracnica, 1966), it didn’t end. I started the film over before it was finished, but it was the right call because the second time I decided to focus on a fixation I’d had but strayed from, trying to process everything. Being prepared for Uher’s surrealist film made all the difference, as recurring themes started to congeal into an interpretation. The key to my reading of Miraculous Virgin is the first thing Tristan (Ladislav Mrkvicka) asks for at the start of the film. The key to Miraculous Virgin is water.
“Terrible thirst. Water! Flood me waterfalls, I’ll drink all the fountains dry.”
After a friend we never see calls for him offscreen, Miraculous Virgin opens with a POV shot of Tristan walking down the street. We hear the sound of his footsteps on the cobblestones, as he talks about water and comes upon a pig’s head in a shop window. Instead of an apple in his mouth, the pig is holding a lemon, something sour to make Tristan thirstier. The scene then cuts to Tristan walking out of a restaurant, a water bottle in his hand. Wearing gloves, black pants, and a black and white striped shirt he’d look like a mime if it weren’t for the cape around his shoulders, highly dramatic and silly in this context. The music by Ilja Zeljenka during the opening credits has a similar evolution, starting with bells and chimes before moving into opera and ending with carnival music. The water bottle has a spray top, and Tristan sprays himself in the face. Instead of the comedy coming from his being annoyed at getting wet, Tristan is happy to be soaked.
Throughout the film, Tristan carries the water bottle around and it comes to mean different things. At a railroad crossing, Tristan swings the bottle around like a lantern and there are a few occasions where it’s treated like a light source. The main thing it comes to represent is life. Water is how Tristan happens to be at the station when Anabella (Jolanta Umecka), the film’s “miraculous virgin,” arrives by train. “When I’m drinking with my friends, I stray here,” he tells a man waiting for the train, and while you assume he means alcohol (and later Tristan tells Anabella he’s, “…a bit drunk, but you don’t mind – or do you?”) maybe what he’s drunk on is life.
Holding up the water next to Anabella for comparison, this won’t be the last time her liveliness is questioned. At one point it’s implied she’s a vampire. Her black dress gets mistaken (or correctly taken) for mourning clothes, and her other suitor, Raven (Otakar Janda), is a sculptor of death masks at the cemetery. Watching from the window, as Raven lifts a mask from a dead girl’s face, there’s an audible gasp and then Anabella’s gone. Later she’s found drinking water from a spicket in the cemetery.
Anabella chooses life but the problem that keeps bringing her back to these guys is she needs documents – citizenship papers – to enrol at university, documents she can get if she marries one of them. When she first arrives at the train station there are two Anabella’s, one dressed more “sexily,” if you will, and the other, who replaces her in a more reserved dress. Raven’s assistant is played by a different actress, Marta Kmunícková, but there are times when she could be another Anabella, too, one that no longer excites Raven because she works with him, among the dead. “This one, or that one, all cows are black in the night,” the first Anabella says. Earlier, when Tristan saw a cow on a train – female, going by his “farewell darling” – she was being transported to a slaughterhouse. All of the men in this movie have projected ideas of who Anabella is but Anabella isn’t one thing or the other. She has her own goals, which is what’s great about this movie. She’s not purely a figment of the male imagination, but to achieve those goals, men – and more specifically artists – stand in her way.
Art doesn’t always tell the truth, though. When Tristan stages his suicide by drowning, water becomes a source of death. His friends from the artists’ collective go looking for him in his room, and the water bottle has been left behind, to look like a head that’s been hanged from a noose (an earlier scene made it look like Tristan had hanged himself, but it was a visual trick). Tristan isn’t dead. Water doesn’t kill him, and when he jumps into the lake yelling “Anabella” he’s choosing life.
Maybe you could pass off everything that happens to Tristan as a drunkard’s dream but maybe we should find out what he’s been drinking first. Life doesn’t need alcohol to be astounding. Neither does The Miraculous Virgin.
- “Marked By Darkness” (“Poznacení Tmou”, 1959) – An earlier documentary short by Stefan Uher on a school for the blind. Beautifully shot, with cinematography by Miraculous Virgin’s Stanislav Szomolányi, the narration gives it the feel of a wildlife documentary, which combined with images that pile on the “tragedy” of being blind (a young boy touching the ladder a custodian is using to replace a light bulb – light he’ll never see; the music rising like the young girl on screen is about to be killed when she’s trying to string a bead) feels exploitive and far too despondent. The fact that “Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata” plays at the beginning and end doesn’t lift spirits.
- The Story of ‘The Miraculous Virgin’ – A new featurette on the film by the Slovak Film Institute which contains talking heads by director, Martin Šulík, costume designer, Juraj Mojžiš, and others, and considers the times the film was made in and the influence of surrealist paintings on Uher.
- Looking for Anabella – A short, archival documentary with snippets from audition scenes, with other actors trying out for the parts of Anabella, Tristan, and Raven
- A trailer, which focuses on a lot of scenes from the end of the film, so not for watching before you’ve seen the movie
- A pamphlet essay by Michal Michalovič on Dominik Tatarka (who wrote the screenplay for the film based on his novel), Uher as an unconventional choice to direct, and the character of the “miraculous virgin” in the film
Miraculous Virgin is available to order on all-region DVD and, for the first time, on Blu-Ray from Second Run.