The immersive new film by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio “Miracle” takes place in 19th century Ireland after the famine, which harmonizes with the inherent elements of its source material – the author’s 2016 novel “Peace” by Emma Donoghue. It sounds obvious, but when the movie starts it’s not a rain-drenched neighborhood, but rather a brightly lit modern soundstage with scaffolding around what looks like a boxed house and a female voice telling us to watch a movie. He hopes to give in to the illusion because, as he says, “without history, we are nothing.”
Cinema is indeed both a challenge to faith and an opportunity to bind us to the great narrative that is humanity. So every movie is probably, yes, a miracle. But few pay attention to it, as if the imaginary audience were culture hungry innocent beings or alien beings rather than chilled Netflix subscribers.
Sure, the beginning is arched, and that’s twee, but it’s not some mindless trick. Lelio and Donoghue (as co-adapter with Alice Birch) clearly believe that their Brechtian device – which gives way as the camera finally pushes back through the holds of a period ship – is a powerful way to link us to English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) , traveling to Ireland and contemplating her own peculiar invitation to the unreal: a healthy-looking 11-year-old Irish girl who claims she hasn’t eaten a piece of food in four months, just “manna from heaven.” Lib was hired by a committee of older men to monitor Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy) for two weeks and offering her an assessment of the girl’s genuineness.
Trained on the battlefields of the Crimean War, but not entirely powerless in the face of her own weaknesses and needs, Lib sees her extraordinary caring task – shared in shifts with a nun and inevitably imposing itself on a pious, controlled family – as an investigation (or secretly?) And a campaign to to break such a harsh fast.
But unanimous people, including a doctor (Toby Jones), a priest (Ciarán Hinds), and a landowner (Brian F. O’Byrne), care less about establishing the facts than about proof of the miracle of historic famine. There is also a nosy but alluringly rational journalist from the big city (Tom Burke) who Lib must consider as an ally or an obstacle to establishing the authenticity of the “miracle girl” or something more.
As a mystery that explores the boundaries of faith and reason in the more confined corners of society, anchored by a benevolent skeptic who would rather help one child than expose the community’s fault lines, the “Miracle” undeniably resounds in these troubled times regarding faith, facts, and manipulation.
Anna’s lonely, culturally enhanced sanctity – sincere but disturbing – and Lib’s commitment to her reminded me of a phrase that journalist Rachel Aviv coined in her latest book (“Strangers to Ourselves”) on mental health and self-narratives: “the psychic background.” It also aptly describes the atmospheric, tangible cinematography by Ari Wegner, in which the house itself, drenched in the harsh plain is like the mind on the outer edges of the experience, while bursts of color – damp green, purple heather, firelight – become a respite from the darkness.
And yet the “Miracle” can be bumpy, too often it seems to be about itself without letting us in. With this opening up to theatricality, we get something very staged, not probed, indicated, not expressed. In addition to Pugh’s strong, intelligent portrayal of finding the truth as a minefield and Cassidy’s astonishingly enigmatic whispering pal, Lelio – known for his generous focus on one main character (“Fantastic Woman”, “Gloria”) – seems uninterested in the roles of the others actors as living, breathing parts of the community that they helped create, still shapes and can decide the fate of a girl.
Lib, of course, has a different idea of Anna’s fate, which creates nervous tension in a well-thought-out solution to the gothic tension and the motive of moral responsibility. The Miracle may not describe itself definitively, but there is something to see in his adoration of the mysteries of storytelling and self-preservation – initially articulated but outlined in its ending – there is something worth seeing.
Rated: R, for a certain sexuality
Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes
Game: Start on November 2, Los Feliz Theater; Westwood landmark; Bay Theater, Pacific Palisades; also available on Netflix