Issue 28 (2010)
Aleksandr Proshkin: The Miracle (Chudo, 2009)
reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin © 2010
“Based on a true story... All names and characters have been altered.” The standard disclaimer in the end credits sums up the film’s dilemma quite nicely. How do you begin to approach the story of a religious phenomenon if you don’t wish to endorse a particular point of view, but have your own political agenda in mind? It is through the eyes of witnesses who either did not exist or were nowhere near the place that we see the central event and, more importantly, the historical time. This is not intended as a criticism of Aleksandr Proshkin’s film, based on Iurii Arabov’s screenplay, merely an appreciation of the challenges its creators set for themselves.
First, the story. In 1956 Kuibyshev (now Samara), a young woman, Zoia Karnaukhova, celebrated the New Year and, jilted by her lover, took to dance the icon of St. Nicholas. She immediately froze in mid-step and remained standing there for 128 days until revived at Easter—an event that created many problems for the atheist Soviet state, striving to either silence the miracle or explain it away in scientifically acceptable terms. 
In the film, Samara becomes a grimy industrial town named Grechansk, and Zoia is now Tatiana (played by Maria Burova). Grechansk is a strange place. The characters constantly call it a “hole” (and a lot of other, even less flattering names), yet it is the site of a major metal works whose blast furnaces dominate the landscape like pig-iron gods. Tatiana lives with her mother in a log house on the town’s outskirts, and clearly suffers from the lack of male attention. She hopes, vainly, that the big-city journalist, Nikolai, who seduced her a few months before, will be present at her 21st birthday party. In an effort to modernize her rustic dwelling, she steamrolls her mother into throwing away the religious icons—all but one, that of St. Nicholas. “Nicholas? OK, he can stay,” she says with a wicked smile. The bad omens start to build up immediately. A dove crashes through the window and drops dead. Tatiana’s mother, who is more superstitious than religious, reads in the fortune-telling book that a bird in the house portends a serious illness, a sudden death, and madness. Don’t you know that all three will come to pass in just that order? 
The Miracle, however, is not a horror movie. It is a clever satire of the mores and morals of the people caught up in a time of change for which they are ill-prepared—including the instigators of that change. Tatiana goes to her fateful dance and freezes in January 1956. However, Thaw time is on hand, politically. On February 25, Nikita Khrushchev delivers his famous “secret speech” on de-Stalinization, followed by much confusion. The editor of the Volga Truth dispatches his maverick, perpetually hung-over, yet generally reliable workhorse reporter Nikolai Artemiev (Konstantin Khabenskii) to Grechansk to quench the rumors about the local miracle. Yes, THAT Nikolai. Khabenskii inhabits the role perfectly, with just the right doses of irony, pathos and flagging lust. An aspiring poet who published a book of verses years ago, he is now reduced to churning out articles about record-breaking dairy maids, lives in a cramped communal apartment with his hypochondriac and religious-minded wife (Polina Kutepova), and compensates for lost illusions by womanizing and cynically subverting Soviet clichés. Since he is involved in the case more intimately than anyone has a right to suspect, he is not fooled by the fake girl furnished by the wily KGB officer in charge of Religious Affairs, Kondrashov (Sergei Makovetskii). Makovetskii is the delight of the film: brash, opportunistic, subservient when necessary, yet with a cynical sense of humor and enough personality to save him from becoming a caricature—or a monster. It is a pity the film does not allow more space to the duel (duet?) of these two. After Nikolai enlists the help of his old KGB buddy and is finally allowed into the heavily guarded house, he is so shocked by the grisly vision of his paramour turned into a cobweb-covered pillar that he makes a frantic escape to his former life—and the authors soon forget about him.
Much of the discussion of the film on the Russian Internet has focused on whether it is an Orthodox agitka. It is hard to see why. In this critic’s opinion, the least attractive character in The Miracle is Father Andrei (Viktor Shamirov), a solemn Orthodox priest with a knowledge of Kant, who is faced with a dilemma: either Kondrashov closes his church and turns it into a cinema, or he publicly denounces the Grechansk miracle in his sermon. Kondrashov approaches him like a tempting serpent, promising a mutually beneficial deal, which Father Andrei fully accepts after the initial display of resentment. He is ultimately as much a political animal as Kondrashov, minus the humor. There is no priestly humility in his eyes, only the prickly coldness and the bitterness of someone who has lost the battle before it has begun. He knows that his own bosses in the Moscow patriarchy are in cahoots with the KGB. He vents his anger on his wife and kid, then hypocritically talks about love and forgiveness in church. Father Andrei brings to mind what Nietzsche said about the ascetic priest: “They walk among us as embodied reproaches... how they crave to be hangmen.” When confronted with the miracle, his reaction is not different from that of the atheist Nikolai: to run away as far as possible. For all his grand talk, it looks like this is the first time he has to take his faith at face value, and he panics.
And so it goes until Nikita Khrushchev himself, like an atheistic Deus ex machina, descends from heaven (via an emergency landing) and sorts things out. It is hard to grumble about this completely fictitious intervention which must fall under the heading of artistic license. In fact, the “standing of Zoia” (as the incident became known) was not the pinnacle of, but may have been the impetus for Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign, which would escalate in the coming years: “That crackdown, which began in the late fifties and continued into the sixties, reached its peak in 1961: Antireligious propaganda was strengthened, taxes on religious activity increased, churches and monasteries closed” (Taubman 512). As Khrushchev in the film sums it up in a pithy homily, "No 'thaw' for the 'popes'—only the freeze." Khrushchev’s offensive found its cinematic expression in a slate of militantly atheistic movies, including Ivanna (1959, Viktor Ivchenko), Clouds over Borsk (Tuchi nad Borskom, 1960, dir. Vasilii Ordynskii), The Miracle-Making Icon (Chudotvornaia, 1960, dir. Vladimir Skuibin), The Confession (Ispoved’, 1962, dir. Vsevolod Voronin), The Sinful Angel (Greshnyi angel, 1962, dir. Gennadii Kazanskii), and Armageddon (1962, Moisei Izrailev). Such a concentrated assault on religion was never again seen in the post-Khrushchev era.
Khrushchev, as played by Aleksandr Potapov, is another example of successful casting in the film (a remarkable physical resemblance helps, too). A shameless populist, mercurial, unpredictable, earthy, he chews the scenery and the other characters as he goes along. Entering Tatiana’s house, he barely pays any attention to the shocking sight, sinking his teeth into the Archdeacon: “Good day, Citizen Pontiff! Why are you all covered in gold? Easter? And what does gold have to do with it?” It is not clear whether Khrushchev’s anti-religious stance was a concession to the hardliners or it was fully consistent with his vision of de-Stalinization, moving away from Stalin’s compromise with the church and back to Lenin’s militant godlessness. Or was it something personal? At times, in the film, he sounds like a lapsed believer. When his plane goes through bad turbulence before landing, he asks his assistant: “Do you know any prayers? An intellectual must know some prayers!” As the plane takes off at the end, his advisor urges him, “You must carry a big stick! And act!” A pensive Khrushchev replies, “No, I can’t. I don’t want to.” And suddenly, looking out the porthole, “A miracle—such beauty. As if the angel has flown.” This sounds just right, capturing the complex character of the man in one bit of dialogue. 
Some things, however, are plain wrong. There are problems with the film as a period piece that go beyond the issue of whether boogie-woogie records were available, even on X-ray plates, in the Soviet provinces in 1956. Tatiana’s party is attended by a very strange coterie of guests who sometimes act like caricature folksy Russians of yesteryear, sometimes like the infinitely more cynical Russians of the 1990s. The clothes, the language, the demeanor—there is no consistency. Of course, young people always wanted to have fun, but it is a stretch for a Russian viewer of a certain age to believe that this is a 1950s party. It is doubly baffling since Aleksandr Proshkin (The Cold Summer of 1953/ Kholodnoe leto 53-ego) was a young man at the time he depicts. The same anachronistic approach pops up throughout the film, undermining its credibility. Was the 20th Party Congress directly broadcast by Soviet TV, such as it was? I have serious doubts about that.
That said, the film is imminently watchable, even if its ending does not tie up the loose narrative ends, leaving the big questions tantalizingly open. What became of Zoia/Tatiana? Did she end her days in a monastery or, as the film darkly hints, in a psychiatric ward, a place worse than prison? What, then, was the meaning of her ordeal and her revelation? And what really happened in Samara in 1956? But let’s not be churlish. It is refreshing to see signs of life in Russian popular cinema—this is hardly “arthouse fare”, as some Western critics seem to think. The film’s ambitions are much more modest than those of other recent Russian films with religious or quasi-religious themes, like The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003, dir. Andrei Zviagintsev) or The Island (Ostrov, 2006, dir. Pavel Lungin), though the accumulating body of work on the subject calls for a review article or, perhaps, a round-table discussion of the representations of the Russian Orthodox church in contemporary Russian cinema.
|Comment on this review via the LJ Forum|
1] For the Orthodox version of the events see here. The official Soviet version cited a form of paralysis unknown to medicine (the journalist in the film calls it a “major gross motor dysfunction with full sensory deprivation”).
2] The mother has given Tatiana a postcard of “Maxim Gorky—the Storm Petrel announcing the revolution”. A strange birthday gift, but apparently the filmmakers could not resist throwing in some “secular” bird symbolism, by way of ironic juxtaposition.
Taubman, William, Khrushchev. The Man and His Era, London: The Free Press, 2003.
The Miracle, Russia, 2009.
Color, 110 mins.
Director: Aleksandr Proshkin
Scriptwriter: Iurii Arabov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Kariuk and Gennadii Kariuk
Art director: Ekaterina Tatarskaia
Cast: Maria Burova, Sergei Makovetskii, Konstantin Khabenskii, Aleksandr Potapov, Polina Kutepova, Viktor Shamirov, Vitalii Kishchenko, Olga Lapshina, Zurab Kipshidze, Dima Opanasenko.
Producer: Ruben Dishdishian
Production company: Amkart Studio for Central Partnership
Aleksandr Proshkin: The Miracle (Chudo, 2009)
reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin © 2010