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10— The Miracle (1948)
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The Miracle

When Rossellini realized that Una voce umana was too short to be released separately, he immediately began casting about for another subject to accompany it that might be treated at roughly the same length. One night, Fellini, a close collaborator at the time, came up with an idea about a confused and somewhat disturbed goatherd, Nanni, who imagines that a passing wanderer she meets one day is Saint Joseph. The wanderer plies her with wine in order to take advantage of her, and some months later Nanni realizes she is pregnant. Rather than becoming remorseful, she takes her pregnancy to mean that she is "in God's grace" and because this baby will be no ordinary one, she refuses to work out of respect for her divine mission, or to put anything aside, because she knows the Lord will take care of his own. A nun, one of the few representatives of organized religion who appear in the finished film, tells her that she should confess her sin, but Nanni rejects this advice because she is favored by God. The townspeople begin to make fun of what they take to be her spiritual pretensions and cruelly mock her. When her time finally comes, she turns her back on the village and climbs high up the mountain toward a desolate church where she gives birth alone.[1]

Convinced that Rossellini would find the story ridiculous, Fellini at first tried to pass it off as the work of a Russian short story writer. But when the director, who had become completely enamored with the idea, was becoming more and more frustrated at not being able to find the story so that he could buy the rights to it, Fellini finally admitted that he had made the whole thing up, basing it loosely on a story he had heard many times during his childhood.[2] According to Angelo Solmi, Fellini's biographer, the story's particular combination of mys-


ticism and hallucination comes from Tullio Pinelli, who is credited in the film as coscreenwriter and who was a powerful emotional influence on Fellini at the time.

The Miracle continues the questioning of the prevailing neorealist aesthetic that we have noted at work in the films made subsequent to Open City , though in somewhat different terms. Unlike the claustrophobic interior of Una voce umana , the primary locus of the action is now outdoors, and hence this film is reinscribed in the kind of gritty surface realism of real locations and nonprofessional acting (in the secondary roles) that brought the director such fame in his earlier films. Nevertheless, these are not the exteriors of Open City , and the documentary element (which will reappear in La macchina ammazzacattivi ) is once again minimized in favor of an intense concentration on Magnani's performance, which in fact remains as highly foregrounded as it was in Una voce umana . In the seduction scene, for example, "Saint Joseph" (played by Fellini), has not a single word of dialogue, thus further emphasizing Magnani's bravura performance. Quentin Reynolds, who visited Rossellini during the filming, reports being "overwhelmed" by Magnani's acting even before her voice and the rest of the sound track had been dubbed in, and he quotes Rossellini to the effect that "she is a genius, the greatest since Duse."[3] In The Miracle , therefore, the ground against which the figure is seen has been expanded over Una voce umana , but the figure has for all that been scarcely reduced. Thus Giuseppe Ferrara complains with some justice (at least if one insists on seeing the earlier films as normative) that here southern Italy and the Amalfi coast become merely "a scenic background (never before had the landscape been simply a backdrop) utilized aesthetically."[4]

This foregrounding of Magnani's performance also accords well with Rossellini's increasing insistence on individual salvation, and camera angles and cutting consistently reinforce this movement away from the group toward the self. Nanni is held, or rather pinned, in the tight grip of Rossellini's close-ups, which track backward but never give her any breathing space. In fact, in one interesting shot the camera stays on her even though she is being called by someone outside the shot, contrary to normal practice, which would identify the source of the voice. Only when Nanni has moved close enough to the woman calling her is the woman included in the shot.

The coralità absent from Una voce umana is partially reintroduced in The Miracle , however, as befits its centrifugal movement. But Nanni's community fails her utterly, yet in a complex way that Rossellini means to study. Thus, though the continual close-ups stress the individual, the film also has its share of deep-focus medium and long shots that attempt to situate her in relation to her physical and social environment. In one particularly effective shot, we see Nanni huddled in a corner made by the fence on the church porch, while part of the village becomes a kind of backdrop behind her. (What can also be seen in this same shot is the enormous presence of the mountain—stolid, yet transcendent—that will function in a similar iconographic way in Stromboli and Voyage to Italy .) At other moments, extreme long shots, with the camera shooting straight down on her, complement the tracking tight shots mentioned earlier by implying that the cause of the claustrophobic pressure being applied to her lies in the un-


charitable attitude of the villagers. Her difference from them is continually stressed both verbally and visually, as will be Karin's in Stromboli .

The film's most memorable scenes are the most vicious, as for example when Nanni comes down into the village, leaving the protection offered her by the church porch only to be cruelly made fun of (in a mock religious procession whose Open City iconography—particularly the bowl on her head that first suggests a halo, then, in close-up, a crown of thorns—is clearly meant to recall the sufferings of Christ). Yet other details point in a kinder direction. The woman who called out to Nanni in the shot mentioned earlier, for example, tries to convince the students not to make fun of Nanni. Earlier, when Nanni steals an apple from a woman's basket while at mass, it is significant that the woman moves the basket out of further harm's way, but makes no attempt to recover the lost apple that in some way seems to be Nanni's due. Also, she and the other indigents are fed by the nuns, and the church porch seems to be universally respected as their legitimate home.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film concerns its complex visual and narrative structuring of the dynamic between Nanni's spiritual faith and the cynicism of the majority of the villagers. The opposition between the spiritual and everyday, ordinary life is cast throughout the film in remarkably consistent, if predictable, spatial terms (just as it will be in Stromboli ), the transcendent always being associated with what is higher, and the everyday and terrestrial, naturally, with what is lower. It is thus fitting that the village is at the bottom and the monastery, which symbolizes for us and for Nanni (at least until she finds it is locked) the summit of spirituality, at the top. In the very first scene, we see Nanni completely alone, far above the village, and it is here that she has her "spiritual" encounter with "Saint Joseph." When she comes back down from the mountain with her firewood and goats, precisely halfway down she appropriately meets two monks, one whimsical, who believes completely in her miraculous vision, and the other, characterized by the first as a "materialist," who says he has never seen a vision in his life. Occupying a similar halfway position between the two realms is the church whose porch is her home, toward which she runs when she finds out she is pregnant. When she does come down into the village later on, she says that she had not come down from God's house any sooner because she was afraid. After a brutal encounter with the villagers, who throw vegetables at her and otherwise violently mistreat her, she seeks refuge further up, away from their dangerous unbelief. When it is time for her to deliver, she at first begins making her way back down the mountain, in a natural movement toward human community, but when she spots a religious procession from afar, she remembers her cruel treatment and abruptly turns around to begin her ascent. Her physical climb heavenward thus becomes a literalization of her spiritual struggle, as earthly words melt away into the complete silence of the otherworldly.

There is another dynamic at work here, beyond the spatialization of spirituality, and that is the one between the "realistic" and the "real" that we have seen in operation in previous films. It is in fullest operation in the scene—which, like the sequence of Edmund's final peregrinations around Berlin in Germany, Year Zero , Rossellini misleadingly claimed to be the only sequence he was really


interested in—where Cosimino, Nanni's erstwhile suitor and companion "village idiot," kicks all her worldly possessions off the church porch. By sending her tattered blankets and empty cans flying, he, too, like the rest of the village, is rejecting her for putting on spiritual airs. To play this role, Rossellini found a local character who apparently had few inhibitions. His retarded-looking physiognomy itself is more "real" than anything normally seen on the screen at that time, even the neorealist screen, thus stretching the bounds of realism, but during the filming of this particular scene, he went slightly berserk and could not be calmed down. Rossellini wisely kept shooting, and the exciting result makes us feel that we have been treated to a glimpse of "real life," again, something out of control. The hand-held camera follows the decidedly upset (and perhaps inspired) Nanni around in a tight 360-degree movement, which is visually different from anything else in the film and clearly disturbs its "realistic" texture. The effect is all the greater because it contrasts so strongly with the prevailing sense of this film, which, even more than Open City , is one of a thoroughly worked-out scenario in which the aleatory is kept to a minimum. The very "reality" of the scene, again, as well as the unorthodox hand-held camera movement, breaks the film's illusionistic spell, at least momentarily.

In addition, neorealism's unspoken claim to represent reality fully is also problematized from a new direction, a direction that will be followed through the next five years of Rossellini's career. What happens, in effect, is that the director now begins to redefine "realism"—or, perhaps better, to go beyond it—to include a new, more insistent awareness of something beyond the merely material, a feeling that was always present by implication in the earlier films but that now becomes overt. As Rossellini told Mario Verdone in 1952:

I constantly come back, even in the strictest documentary forms, to imagination , because one part of man tends towards the concrete, and the other to the use of the imagination, and the first must not be allowed to suffocate the second. This is why you find fantasy at work in Il Miracolo, La Macchina ammazzacattivi , and Paisà as well as in [Francesco ].[5]

Rossellini seems to be positing fantasy and the imagination as values in their own right in these remarks, but most Italian critics of the period (and since)—both his detractors and his defenders—could think of fantasy only in terms of realist rhetoric. The critics who defend these films do so by claiming that Rossellini is still just as much a realist as ever, but that now he is enlarging the scope of his realism to include interior spiritual states as well. This claim has some merit, of course, but it also serves to dilute further the already nearly useless term realism. For socially minded critics, on the other hand, especially the Marxists, the films of this period were utter failures because in them Rossellini began indulging in an unforgivable mysticism and other equally unprogressive attitudes. Talk of a "crisis" became widespread. For Borde and Bouissy, writing somewhat later, The Miracle is the beginning of all of Rossellini's future problems. For them the film is a "naive Golgotha" that "marks a great turning point for him: he has just tasted the drug of Christian lyricism."[6] Those who know the earlier films, like L'uomo dalla croce , however, will recognize these spiritual concerns as nothing new.


Rossellini told another interviewer that, immediately after the war, it was proper to try to help man see the world, but

Today I have other things on my mind. Today I believe that we must find a new and solid base on which to construct and represent man as he is, in the union which exists inside him between poetry and reality, between desire and action, between dream and life. For this reason, I made L'amore and La macchina ammazzacattivi .[7]

But what is this world of poetry, desire, and dream? For the purposes of this film, at any rate, it is the world of religious faith, but a religious faith unattached to any specific religion. What obviously interests Rossellini much more than dogma is accounting for man's spiritual longing, that "oceanic feeling" that Freud belittled in Civilization and Its Discontents . Rossellini said in a 1954 Cahiers du cinéma interview that Nanni "has a kind of religious mania, but, in addition to this mania, a deep and true faith. She is able to believe whatever she wants."[8] It is this same expression of faith that will precipitate the sudden, transcendent ending of Stromboli . In both cases, of course, the object of faith is God, but for Rossellini the mere existence of faith is finally more important than its object. In Rossellini's view, postwar Europe was rapidly losing the spiritual values that had brought it through the terrors of the war, and it is his urge to resuscitate this lost faith that accounts for the strong religious strain of the films of this period. And, as Adriano Aprà has mentioned, The Miracle is the first postwar film of Rossellini's to end with a birth, a hopeful note that inevitably looks outward, beyond itself, beyond tragedy, beyond the suicides, executions, and murders that occupy the earlier films.

Yet the religious faith of The Miracle is hardly an endorsement of conventional religion. In fact, the film continues and develops the implied critique of organized religion that began in the final sequence of Germany, Year Zero when Edmund stares blankly at the ruined church that no longer has any meaning for him nor promises any hope of salvation. When the nun in The Miracle suggests to Nanni that she go to confession, she rejects her advice. Nanni's long struggle to climb to the top of the mountain, intercut with promising long shots of the monastery as a haven toward which she is moving, ends in her discovery that the church is empty and locked. She pulls on the bars in a frustrating, futile effort to gain entry. (A subtle hint of this failure has come in an earlier sequence in the village church when she first discovers she is pregnant. She prostrates herself before the altar, as if offering her obeisance to the Lord, but of course nothing happens: the overwhelming impression is one of cold, sterile emptiness.) At the top of the mountain, the religion of men fails her, as it has in the villagers' mockery, and she must go back to the primal source of Christianity itself. Entering the church by an open side door, she moves down into a rocky, rough cellar, which is reminiscent of the primitiveness of the caves in the Sicilian episode of Paisan , and even more importantly, recalls the standard iconography of Christ's Nativity.

Many of those who first saw the film readily recognized this latter reference, but unfortunately they were able to see the possibilities of such a representation only in a reductive, binary way as either "properly" respectful, or, failing that,


a blasphemous parody. The latter view predominated, of course, and as soon as the film was released, it was violently attacked in Europe, Latin America, and the United States, and instantly banned in Argentina and Australia. In the United States, Joseph Burstyn had packaged The Miracle with two other films of inconvenient length (Jean Renoir's A Day in the Country and Marcel Pagnol's Joffroi ), into a triptych called Ways of Love . It opened, to mixed reviews, on December 12, 1950, at the Paris theater in Manhattan. The next day Edward T. McCaffrey, the comissioner of licenses in New York City and a former commander of the New York State branch of the Catholic War Veterans, found The Miracle "personally and officially blasphemous," and took it upon himself to overrule the censorship board of the New York State Regents, which had already passed it. This government official, whose previous activity had mostly concerned the granting of liquor and restaurant licenses, ordered the theater to stop showing the film or risk losing its license. When Burstyn and the Paris decided to fight back, fire inspectors began appearing to check for safety infractions in the nearly new theater.

Since McCaffrey had no legal grounds to support his censorship, the ban was immediately lifted by the courts. This was the signal for the Catholic church to enter the fray through its Legion of Decency, which had been pressuring Hollywood for some time with its film rating system. While Burstyn was holding press conferences insisting that Rossellini was a good Catholic, the national head of the Catholic War Veterans was saying that the script "reflected the writings of Moscow, even though the picture was reputed to be a piece of art from Italy."[9] A statement, signed by 167 American Legion posts across the country, maintained that the film "ridicules the American principles for which we fought in both wars,"[10] and over one thousand pickets showed up at the Paris to protest the film's "Communist blasphemy." Several bomb threats were received, conveniently allowing the authorities to disrupt the screenings. The New York Film Critics had chosen Ways of Love as best foreign film of 1950, but intense lobbying forced them to move the award ceremonies from Radio City Music Hall. Pressure was also applied to the New York Board of Regents, which had never before reversed a decision by its censorship committee to pass a film, and the film's license was revoked on February 16, 1951. Catholics like Allen Tate fought hard against the boycott, with the New York Times' Bosley Crowther emerging as the film's principal spokesman, defending it in an article in the April 1951 issue of the Atlantic Monthly . He suggested that Catholic fury directed against The Miracle was part of a larger strategy to extend the Church's control over the content of foreign films as well as those produced in Hollywood. Burstyn decided to push the issue as far as he could, and the Supreme Court ultimately decided in favor of the film on May 26, 1952. In what became a landmark decision for the film industry, the Court held, for the first time, that films were not merely a business, and that they should therefore enjoy the same First Amendment rights of freedom of expression applied to other media. In addition, it ruled that it was not the business of the state to protect specific religions from attacks on their views, and therefore sacrilege could no longer serve as a basis for censorship.

Of course much of the animus directed against this film was a result of the


Rossellini–Bergman scandal that had so recently been filling the newspapers. Rossellini attempted to mitigate in some way the adverse reaction to the film by sending Cardinal Spellman the following telegram:

Men are still without pity because they have not gone back to God. But God is already present in the faith, however confused, of that poor persecuted woman, and since God is wherever a human being suffers and is misunderstood, the miracle occurs when at the birth of the child the poor demented woman regains sanity in her maternal love."[11]

At first glance this seems, to anyone who has seen the film, to be little more than a kind of pitiful stab at public relations; Rossellini's view that the title refers to Nanni's sudden regaining of her sanity through the birth of the child is hardly convincing. In terms of his other films, however, the explanation makes more sense. For one thing, of course, it is characteristic for Rossellini to put the epiphanic moment of character realization and change at the very end of the film. As we saw earlier, this was the consistent pattern of the individual episodes of Paisan . But it is also the pattern of the films he was to make after The Miracle: Stromboli and Voyage to Italy in fact, have always bothered viewers with what seem to be unconvincing "miracles" that occur at the very end, changes of heart that appear unmotivated in the context of the films' narratives. Thus, the ending of The Miracle can also be seen to be miraculous; it simply does not insist on its status as such, as the other films do, and thus might ironically be more palatable to modern, secularized, audiences because it is, in effect, misunderstood. In a similar vein, Rossellini has said elsewhere that it is precisely Nanni's immense faith that leads this otherwise disturbed women to a "gesture which is absolutely human and normal: giving her breast to her baby."[12]

It is also useful in this context to concentrate more intensely on just what Nanni says at the end. This film, so full of talk at the beginning (and in this way replicating and extending Magnani's loquaciousness in Una voce umana ), becomes in its final third, like Germany, Year Zero , utterly speechless. Thus, when Nanni does speak to her child at the very end, her words are highlighted. During the labor itself, she cries "Dio" over and over, but the word is now articulated in a decidedly human context of pain, and is clearly not meant to be an appellation for the child. Once the baby is born, she covers him with words that insist upon his humanness rather than the divinity she had earlier been concerned with. She calls him "my son, my flesh, my blood"—and part of this, at least, is translated in the English subtitles. What is not translated at all, however (and this seems to be an instance of a completely innocent choice of the subtitler), are her final words, where she says "bambino mio" (my baby) three times before settling into maternal bliss. In other words, the ending can be read Rossellini's way, as the site of the miracle where Nanni regains her sanity through human childbirth, and not as a parody of Christ's Nativity.

One final area that must be examined, since it is crucial for the films to come, is the portrayal of women and sexuality in The Miracle . Cardinal Spellman, interestingly enough for a churchman of the early fifties, claimed to have been scandalized as much by the film's negative portrayal of Italian womanhood as


An aroused Magnani and the silent "Saint Joseph"
(Federico Fellini) in The Miracle  (1948).

by its putative sacrilege. He complained strenuously that "it presents the Italian woman as moronic and neurotic and in matters of religion fanatical. Only a perverted mind could so misrepresent so noble a race of women."[13] His stubborn insistence on seeing Nanni exclusively in universal terms makes his comment hardly worth considering, yet there is something about the portrayal of woman in this film that bears scrutiny. Like the woman in Una voce umana , Nanni is again related to a man, "Saint Joseph," as victim. In addition, both men are silent—strongly present, but paradoxically absent at the same time—while the women fill the sound track with the driven babbling that seems at least psychologically suicidal. Nanni is also surrounded by animals, as Ingrid Bergman's several characters will be as well. This is not because Rossellini necessarily sees women as "earth mothers" or somehow more closely related to nature,[14] but because they share with animals the role of victim in a man's world.

Yet what mitigates Nanni's status as victim is her own ripe sexuality. Despite one early English reviewer's complaint about Rossellini's "loathing of sex" in this film (a misreading that perhaps says more about the beholder than the beheld), the film's sexuality seems healthy and ebullient. This fact is somewhat obscured, unfortunately, by the English subtitles, which do not give an accurate picture of just how sexually motivated is Nanni's attraction to "Saint Joseph."


Her "quanto sei bello!" (you are so handsome) is translated once or twice, perhaps, but in fact she repeats it over and over, obsessively, during the course of her monologue. Thus, while it might be said that Nanni is the man's victim here, since she is presumably not intelligent enough to know what she is getting into, it is also clear that she consents because she has been sexually aroused herself. As she drinks more and more wine, she begins to perspire and says at one point, "I have a fire burning inside me!" Various bizarre camera angles—as well as her more obvious tearing at blouse and undershirt—also suggest her increasing sexual openness. Finally, she is writhing so continuously at one point that the viewer assumes momentarily that she is actually having sexual intercourse—which must have been an exciting moment in 1948—but a cut away from this shot of the upper half of her body reveals "Saint Joseph" standing over her. At the very end of the film, the camera again focuses on the upper half of Nanni's body, when she puts her arms up on the walls for support in a gesture that directly recalls both Christ on the cross and Manfredi in Open City's torture chamber. She begins writhing with the pain of labor, and the entire event is portrayed so "earthily" that its sexual suggestivity is obvious. (What is also problematic here—and worrisome—is the positioning of Rossellini's "male" camera, which possesses her no less than does "Saint Joseph.")

The end result of this ambivalence—Nanni as victim of males (including the director), Nanni as fully sexual being—is to suggest that she, like all women, like all human beings, is not one-dimensional. This complexity is also reflected on the religious level, as Nanni is recalled to her "senses" through—or in spite of—her intense spiritual faith. The film's final scene, in fact, looks forward to the reconciliation of body, mind, and spirit that will take place at the end of Voyage to Italy . In this light, in spite of her isolation from her society and her victimization by its men, we must imagine Nanni happy.


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