This is an odd one, and I’m guessing that most viewers who see it fall into one of two diametrically opposed camps. On the one hand, you’ve got those folks who love it, cherish it, find it adorable, humorous, spiritually elevating and inspiring. Then you’ve got those people who find it blatant Christian propaganda, intolerable, sugary, patronizing, and simpleminded.
It’s maybe hard to believe that so sweet and gentle a picture as “Miracle of Marcelino” could impact audiences so differently, yet this little black-and-white Spanish picture seems bound to have that effect. Hungarian director Ladislao Vajda (“It Happened in Broad Daylight,” “Uncle Hyacynth,” “The Man Who Wagged His Tail”) helped adapt the film in 1955 from a novel by José María Sánchez Silva, its original title “Marcelino pan y vino” (“Marcelino Bread and Wine”), and by now probably every kid who’s ever gone to a Catholic parochial grammar school has seen it. For me, I’d just heard about it (the Cannes Film Festival gave it two of their OCIC Special Mention awards and nominated it for the Palm d’Or), so this Blu-ray edition was my first time through.
The story, which Silva based on medieval folklore, concerns a little boy who sees and speaks with Jesus. One can interpret it as a fantasy, a fable, a dream, or, if one is a serious Christian fundamentalist, an absolute reality. It’s that kind of story, where the filmmakers encourage each viewer to come away with his or her own impression of events. I like to think of it as a parable–a brief, allegorical tale meant to convey a moral lesson; however, the message is a little obscure, which lends, of course, to the film’s somewhat controversial nature.
The setting takes place in the high mountain country of Spain, in a monastery and small, nearby village in some undisclosed distant past. A village priest (played by Fernando Rey, probably the only actor in the film that American viewers are likely to recognize) tells the boy’s story years later to an ill young girl and her family. By this time, the tale of the boy has grown to legend, and the villagers have come to venerate the boy’s memory.
According to the story narrated by the priest, the friars of a new monastery find an orphaned baby boy on their doorstop. The kindly monks attempt to find a home for him among the villagers, but they get no takers and decide to raise him themselves. They name him Marcelino.
A little over five years go by, and we flash forward to Marcelino’s mischievous behavior. The youngster, having no other kids to associate with, talks to an imaginary friend he calls Manuel. Meanwhile, the monks tell Marcelino there is only one place in the monastery he must never go, a dark room upstairs. Naturally, Marcelino wants to find out what’s up there.
Then, one day playing in the hills around the monastery, Marcelino gets stung on the foot by a scorpion, and the friars try to tend to the boy. While lying sick, Marcelino either dreams or actually gets out of bed and visits the forbidden room, where he sees a beautiful, full-sized, carved-wooden statue of Christ on the cross. Thinking the figure on the cross is hungry, Marcelino brings it bread and wine, which the figure accepts. From then on, the story becomes almost surreal, and the interpretations of Marcelino’s request of the Christ figure and Marcelino’s “reward” from the figure become open to conjecture.
One may see just from a brief description that the movie has something to do with the sinless nature of children and their modesty and humbleness enriching their lives spiritually. Whether a viewer is devoutly religious and accepts the movie’s theme literally or whether a viewer is skeptical of religion and accepts the message simply as one of hope and aspiration makes little difference. The movie is uplifting in its innocence and charm.
What’s more, the black-and-white photography is quite attractive, often inventive, and the boy playing Marcelino–Pablito Calvo–is a revelation. Not only is he cute and playful, he’s a convincing actor, never precious as so many child actors can be. It’s a shame the young man never continued very far in film, choosing instead to go into a different walk of life.
I’m not sure “Miracle of Marcelino” is a great film classic, nor do I think it is entirely worthy of showing to every school kid in the country; indeed, it may even be a little scary for the youngest of children and a little beyond their ability to interpret. However, when I asked a good friend of mine if he had ever seen it, he said, “Why, yes, when I was little”; and he loved it. I’ve read that in 1955 the movie became the highest-grossing Spanish film ever released in America. It’s still as sweet as ever.
VCI use a single-layer BD25 and VC-1 codec to transfer the digitally restored picture to high-definition Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio, 1.37:1. The image they obtain is very clear, very well defined, with excellent black-and-white contrasts. The restoration has removed most egregious age marks, so you’ll find no major lines, specks, fades, or such. There are, however, some minor flecks here and there and some noise noticeable in vast expanses of sky. When it’s good, the PQ is quite good, and that is most of the time.
The keep case says that VCI use Dolby Digital to reproduce the sound, but the readout on my Panasonic Blu-ray player says it’s LPCM (linear pulse-code modulation) stereo. I suspect that it’s actually 2.0 monaural. In any case, it sounds like mono, and very good mono at that. It is quite smooth, warm, and natural, rendering dialogue in a lifelike and easily understood manner. There is little to the frequency extremes, as one might expect, and a fairly limited dynamic range, but it’s hardly the sort of film that requires such things.
Incidentally, you can watch the movie either in its original Spanish (with optional English subtitles) or in an excellent English dub. Usually, I don’t care much for dubs, but this one is quite good, the actors voicing the English most commendably. It’s only the voice of the village mayor that gets a little too blustery; otherwise, if you didn’t know it was a dub, you might not even recognize the fact.
The disc includes two newly made featurettes to accompany the movie. The first is “A Childlike Faith,” seven minutes, in which several pastors and ministers discuss the movie, its themes, and the faith, innocence, and humility of children in relation to God. The second featurette, simply called “Miracles,” is thirteen minutes long and is a continuation of the first item, with the same people investigating and explaining the nature of modern miracles.
The extras conclude with six scene selections; English and Spanish spoken languages; and English subtitles. Then, kudos to VCI for packaging the disc in a solid Blu-ray keep case, not a flimsy, cut-apart Eco-case.
“Miracle of Marcelino” is, as I’ve said, a sweet and gentle parable, the story of a young boy who inspires an entire village, a movie that has inspired entire generations of filmgoers. If the movie’s message seems a little vague, that’s no doubt how the filmmakers intended it. Miracles, after all, surpass all human power to understand them; that’s why we call them miracles. The movie, too, is a minor miracle of inspirational filmmaking.