Watching “Miracle” was, for me, a small act of movie rebellion. The film is the second installment in a planned trilogy from Romanian-born director and writer Bogdan George Apetri. I hadn’t yet seen the first in the series, “Unidentified,” but this turned out not to be a problem—the two films are set in the same small town in Romania and feature overlapping characters, but the storylines don’t intersect in ways that prescribe a viewing order.
I was drawn to “Miracle”’s story of a young nun (Cristina) on a mysterious journey. I wondered if it would at all resemble the 2013 Academy Award–winning film “Ida” (dir. Paweł Pawlikowski), which I love for its depiction of faith and doubt in 1960s Poland. “Miracle” is set in the present day—with a series of unanswered cell phone calls creating an air of mystery right from the first scene—and despite featuring a nun as the protagonist, it doesn’t deal with religion or spirituality in any kind of headfirst way. In early scenes, we see Cristina being scoffed at by her fellow taxi passenger for supposedly trying to pray away health issues rather than seeing a doctor (the irony being that she is en route to the hospital to seek treatment). And, of course, there is the titular “miracle,” though it’s unclear in the end whether its source is God or simply an intervening sense of humanity.
That is to say, “Miracle” is more interested in the worldly than the spiritual—in broad questions about human nature, morality, and at what cost we should seek justice. There is also an undercurrent of feeling about what it means to live in Romania today. Featured prominently throughout the film’s many car scenes is the radio, mostly playing Romanian “oldies” pop music that seems to transcend generational boundaries and hints at a persisting nostalgia. In an interview for WORT, the director talked about how this nostalgia is experienced differently: some people long for the pre-Revolution days, while others may have a vague sense that life was just better “back then” than it is now.
One of the striking things about “Miracle” is the camera work. With only forty-two sequence shots (or long takes) employed during the whole film, viewers are often looking at a scene from the same angle for an extended time. This lends a certain air of realism to the story, like you’re just witnessing things as they happen. It doesn’t mean the movie is hyperrealistic, though: there are also moments that are metaphorical or even magical and stand outside of what could be considered objective reality. Notably, there is a central scene upon which the whole film pivots that looks away from the action by having the camera slowly pan around 360 degrees. As a viewer, I appreciated this on both a practical level (not having to voyeuristically witness something disturbing) and an aesthetic one. It’s a scene I will remember for a long time because of that.
Critics have also noted the unique “mirror structure” of “Miracle,” wherein the nun’s steps in the first half are retraced by the investigator in the second. As I watched, I wondered exactly what the audience could learn in the latter half after witnessing almost everything directly while following Cristina in the first. I was pleasantly surprised that there was still more to uncover about Cristina’s story during the investigation, which gave the film that satisfying onion-peeling feeling of a good mystery narrative.
“Miracle” is a movie-lover’s film, with lots of cinematography, music, and structural elements deserving of analysis. But it’s also just fun to watch, with pacing that feels deliberate and revelations aplenty for viewers who can’t resist a good mystery. (However, I should note that despite its very tasteful treatment of serious subjects, viewer discretion is advised due to a couple violent moments in the film.)
I’m glad that the Wisconsin Film Festival decided to screen the series so I could be introduced to Bogdan George Apetri’s work. I look forward to catching up by watching “Unidentified” and to hopefully seeing the final installment make its way to Madison theaters in the next couple years.