The Only Counted Blessing
Modern filmgoers are not known for their patience. That patience doesn’t have much to do with the length of a movie, considering that it feels like films these days are getting progressively longer. Does a Batman movie absolutely need to be three hours? I remember seeing relieved chatter online that Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness only had a runtime of two hours and six minutes.
Where folks tend to get antsy is in their desire for a movie to get to the point — fast. For instance, a movie like the beloved by me and many others RRR features a bladder-battering three-hour and seven-minute runtime, but it hits the ground running and never lets up.* Audiences will usually embrace a lot of movie if it moves like a gazelle.
Then there are slow burn movies, and the even longer European slow burn movies. These kinds of films often feature natural lighting, long takes, and meandering dialogue. Sometimes they can be, and you’ll pardon my jejune opinion, boring as hell. Other times, like the new Romanian feature Miracle, your patience is richly rewarded.
We’re introduced to Cristina (Ioana Bugarin), a young woman living at a Romanian convent. She’s not a nun, as such, since she’s only been there for a few months. Is she serious about the extensive devotions necessary to pledge herself to the nunnery and to God? It’s a little hard to say, as one of the other sisters returns a cellphone to Cristina and informs her that her taxi has arrived.
Clearly, Cristina has a great deal on her mind. The taxi driver Albu (Valeriu Andriuta) senses the young woman is conflicted and, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, tries to break through her reserves. She doesn’t want to talk much. She does tell Albu to pull over to an isolated area near a bridge so she can change out of her habit and into street clothes, and she mentions she wants to go to the hospital. She informs another passenger, a doctor, that she has headaches.
Once Cristina arrives, the semi-kindly doctor shepherds her to a neurologist. Once she’s told to wait, Cristina slips away and heads for another doctor — an OB/GYN. After another few stops, Cristina hails a cab driven by Batin (Cesar Antal). He’s kind of a dweeb, but definitely friendlier than the first driver. And then, something awful takes place.
A few days later, Inspector Marius Preda (Emanuel Parvu) is investigating. He has a suspect. He’s positive the suspect is guilty. The problem is, the suspect can only be held by the police for another six hours before being let go. In that six hours, Marius must find evidence to secure a conviction. Does it matter if the evidence is legitimate? Not necessarily.
It feels as if director Bogdan George Apetri has made two movies, then stitched them together to form Miracle. The first movie is forty-five minutes or so, and it follows Cristina’s journey, while the remainder focuses on Marius’ investigation. One of the miraculous facts in a film that’s somewhat about a miracle is that Apetri’s film features just forty-two sequence shots,** and one near the end that runs for sixteen minutes. Apetri is like the anti-Michael Bay, and his long shots and languid pacing force us to pay attention to two things. First is the perspective of the camera and not only what we’re viewing but how. The second is the passage of time. We become particularly aware of that during a moment when an honest-to-God miracle seems to have taken place.
Apetri penned the screenplay as well, and he’s acutely aware of the rule of “show, don’t tell.” He shows us how these people behave, and what they prioritize, and through their actions, we learn who they really are. In the second half that’s chiefly concerned with the investigation, information is parsed out in an erratic fashion and one line of hugely important dialogue is intentionally obscured. The dialogue rambles and the characters don’t just focus on the plot. They opine about their country, a place that feels bereft of hope and energy and where everyone is just going through the motions.
The performances are quiet, subtle, and natural. Watch Ioana Bugarin as Cristina, how she moves, what she looks at, and what words she chooses. The film doesn’t reveal too much about her because it knows it doesn’t have to. Everything that matters is in Bugarin’s performance. Along similar lines is Emanuel Parvu’s Marius. To look at him is to see a tweedy English professor, a retiring academic type. Then he mocks the piety of his partner, plants evidence, and we begin to understand he’s a man driven by frustration. The people around him and the country around him are both irrevocably flawed. It seems that nothing much matters except for a degree of justice in this case.
I’m not sure I can see myself returning to Miracle. It doesn’t exactly strike me as cinematic comfort food, the kind of film you find yourself returning to over and over. Yet I’ve also seen enough movies during my life to know that, as time passes, perspectives change. A film made with care that requires patience just might be ripe for rediscovery. First, it ought to be discovered, and it’s more than worth your time.
*Though it does bring up the irony of people resisting watching a single feature film, and instead, choosing to binge a TV series for eight hours.
**To quote a very useful article, “So if a single shot is a bit like a sentence in a story, a sequence is like a paragraph.”