Štefan Uher’s The Miraculous Virgin, released on Blu-Ray for the first time anywhere in the world by Second Run Films, is one of those 1960s Czechoslovak films that’s so freeform in its plotting, so rapturously visual, that it’s hard to imagine it having a script, let alone a source novel. In fact, the script is by Dominik Tatarka, a celebrated Slovak writer and translator adapting his own 1945 novel. Usually when an author adapts their own novel the end result is a staid, literary, overly respectful film, but The Miraculous Virgin somehow escaped this trap and became a virtuoso exercise in imagery. Its skeletal plot – about a group of men entranced by a mysterious woman – is really just a pretext for a string of remarkable dream vignettes, like a candle being dipped in the Danube and coming out lit, or a Roman soldier replacing a telephone handset in the tree trunk where he inexplicably found it.
As Michal Michalovič notes in his effusive, accessible booklet, this is quite a surprise coming from Uher. Uher was certainly an original director – his 1962 film The Sun in a Net is often cited as the origin point of the Czechoslovak New Wave – but a Surrealist? Back when Surrealism was an actual artistic movement rather than a description used in stand-up comedy reviews, the territory that would become Czechia had a thriving Surrealist scene; indeed one of its most famous living directors, Jan Švankmajer, is a self-described Surrealist. In Slovakia – and The Miraculous Virgin is definitely, powerfully Slovak, from its language to its Bratislava setting – there was the similar ‘Nadrealism’ scene, which Tatarka was involved with.
While all this was going on, Uher was making films like Marked by Darkness, the powerful 1959 short included as an extra on this set. Marked by Darkness is a docudrama about blind children; it is not Surrealist in style or subject matter but it has moments which suggest a certain kindred spirit. Like the recent British documentary Notes on Blindness, it breaks with cinematic realism in order to evoke, rather than merely depict, the world of the blind. It also has a strange, wistful voiceover, given to phrases like “There is something undeniably poetic about school desks”. Children who spend all day sat at them may disagree, but it’s an unmistakable first flowering of the poetic sensibility that informs The Miraculous Virgin.
The very first image in The Miraculous Virgin evokes Giorgio de Chirico’s 1914 painting The Song of Love, a work so exciting for the Surrealists that, when Yves Tanguy first caught sight of it, he jumped from a moving tram to get a better look. This kind of studied, referential approach to Surrealism shouldn’t work. Being a Surrealist is like being naturally funny: the more you try, the less likely you are to succeed. But even when his imagery is familiar, the treatment is distinctive. There are moments in The Miraculous Virgin that superficially recall Věra Chytilová’s Daisies and Juraj Jakubisko’s Birds, Orphans and Fools (although Uher’s film was made at the same time as the first and before the latter), but The Miraculous Virgin feels so different. It is calm, monochrome and reflective where those films were frantic, colourful and anarchic. It still feels like a dream, just a more haunting dream.
The Surrealists tended to write a lot of books and poems about artists entranced by mysterious women. It isn’t a facet of their work that has aged terribly well, but the gender politics of Uher’s film are more interesting. Not only does it feature Slovak cinema’s first scene of male nudity, but Annabella – the titular virgin – is a more empowered figure than André Breton’s Nadja. She is still defined by mystery and inscrutability, but she’s also formidable enough to spook a man who calls himself ‘The Raven’ and makes his living casting death-masks from corpses in a Gothic catacomb. She is the Id, framed through holes in walls or tunnel entrances, defending rebellious children against disciplinarian parents, inspiring the men she meets to frantic acts of self-abasement like eating clothes and dry-humping couches.
In a 25-minute documentary included as part of the extras, director and Uher protégé Martin Šulik gives a reading which may explain why Annabella’s characterisation works so well. She does not encourage the men to create art in her honour, she inspires them to create art that is new, that comes from themselves rather than their influences. She is not a muse, she is art. The supplementary materials are full of these suggestions for different interpretations, which is as it should be. There are no pat answers – how could you explain a film like this? – but lots of fruitful new lines of inquiry. Second Run’s Blu-Ray transfers have generally been impressive but The Miraculous Virgin looks astonishingly clear, detailed and bright, exactly what Stanislav Szomolányi’s stunning deep-focus cinematography deserves.
THE MIRACULOUS VIRGIN IS OUT ON SECOND RUN DVD