Francesco Rosi’s Odd Bout of Irrealism in ‘More Than a Miracle’

In More than a Miracle, we have no hope that the whole countryside must live happily ever after.

More Than a Miracle opens very oddly, twice. First, it opens with a title song, performed by pianist Roger Williams and “his chorus and orchestra” while we see ever-shifting colored whirls of smoke and then what looks with a sparkly Christmas ornament. No credits, but it’s very ’60s. The song finishes, and then we get several disorienting minutes of jittery handheld camera work and rapid editing (the kind of thing common today, rare in 1967) to convey the idea that a man (Omar Sharif) is taming an unruly white horse.

Just as we’re thoroughly confused, classical order almost regains its throne as an imperious woman in black (Dolores Del Rio) marches into the scene and shouts the expository information that her equally unruly son, Prince Rodrigo, is expected to select a bride from the seven candidates awaiting him. Instead, he rides his horse into the hilly wilderness until the opening credits begin to roll.

The two credits required for the title song, one for lyrics and the other for performance, are broken up, with the lyricists sharing the screen inappropriately with photographer Pasquale De Santis. I suspect that the song was created for and pasted onto this US release version of an Italian-French co-production whose Italian title, C’era una volta, means “Once upon a time”; the French title was La belle et la cavalier. This would explain why the song gets its own odd showcase instead of being heard behind the credits.

Then comes the oddest credit of all: the director of this period fairy tale is Francesco Rosi, who was making his reputation with neorealist dramas on pressing social issues. Indeed, that frantic semi-documentary business about taming the horse looks like Rosi was still under the spell of his bullfighting picture, The Moment of Truth. During the credits, Rodrigo rides that horse straight into a panicked flock of sheep, a moment of symbolism and character related to Rodrigo’s status as a foreign landlord who worries the peasants.

TCM notes that the film is set in 17th Century Italy and filmed around Naples, which was governed by Spain. That’s why Rodrigo and his family are Spanish royalty subject to the oft-discussed King of Spain, who wants Rodrigo to marry an Italian princess for political reasons, while the peasants are terrified of the Spanish horsemen. Later, there’s a jousting tournament between Christian Spain, represented by Rodrigo, and the Moors, whom he defeats. It’s interesting that Sharif is playing the former instead of the latter.

After the credits, Rodrigo comes upon a miracle: a monk (Leslie French) flying above his monastery like a kite while the village urchins run about below. Apparently the guy does this all the time. This scene is where the movie’s fantasy is (literally) at its highest and most graceful, all the more for being utterly unexpected. The effect is presented discreetly and convincingly, though we understand clearly enough how it’s done. This film coincides with The Flying Nun, but that TV series was about an aerodynamic freak, not a miraculous demonstration of faith.

The fact that Rodrigo, while surprised, doesn’t ask the monk about it indicates that we’re not in the world of psychological any more than scientific realism. And yet, after the monk comes back to earth, the rest of the movie will be an earthy, dirty, wet, noisy series of scenes that try to give a “realistic” anchor to such left-field developments as a banquet of ancient witches and a Cinderella-type contest in which the prospective princesses must wash a lot of dishes. The image of women’s roles–rich bitches or poor witches–isn’t inspiring, even for a fairy tale.

As produced by Carlo Ponti, this film is above all intended as a vehicle for his wife, Sophia Loren, as the peasant Isabella. From her stringy hair to her bare feet, she’s as imperious as Del Rio while picking vegetables or shouting at Rodrigo or rolling across country in a barrel (don’t ask). They start fighting as soon as they meet, after she tries to claim the white horse that threw him (symbol alert), and he does everything from pushing her down to slapping her to sealing her in that barrel (I said don’t ask). Clearly it’s a match for the ages, and just as clearly Prince Rodrigo is going to make a fine tyrant one day.

Isabella is spunky and independent in the sense that she lives by herself in a rather roomy hut that seems surrounded by nothing–except when it’s suddenly flanked by villagers and houses. One scene indicates that it’s not far from the ocean, even though she’s never seen it. Again, it is a foolish exercise to attempt to figure out these randomly juxtaposed events and facts according to any realistic principles.

Frankly, the audience (or at least this member of it) doesn’t care whether or how Rodrigo and Isabella will get together, and this oddest entry in Rosi’s docket would be a total plod if it weren’t such a strange, unpredictable collection of ideas. I’m still trying to figure out why a witch makes thousands of eggs hatch in a whimsical setpiece; it must be a symbol of fertility, but it’s mostly just a weirdly pleasing image.

This brings us to one of the movie’s most interesting neorealist ideas: the casting of extras who look plucked from a Velazquez painting. As we look into one close-up after another of wrinkled, dough-faced farmers sporting one or two teeth, I’m reminded less of Fellini‘s love of odd faces than of Pasolini‘s commitment to sprinkling the undernourished, prematurely aged country folk into his marxist-inflected period pieces.

There are moments here, too, when the brazen Isabella speaks up for the people as a kind of nascent class-consciousness, but the plot constrains her to love the spoiled prince as much as he loves, or wants to own and tame, her luscious free spirit. Late in the film, the hovering monk will offer a critique of those saints who council patient endurance of the world’s suffering to reap one’s reward in heaven; he’s all for taking positive action in this world.

Still, it’s hard to know why he cares about this star couple, calling Rodrigo “a good boy” just as the head witch had called Isabella “a good girl”. Allegorically, it could mean that the ruling class must merge with “the people”, but we have no hope that the whole countryside must live happily ever after.

This is the English print, distributed by MGM in the US and now available on demand from Warner Archive. I have no idea how it compares to Italian or French versions (I assume that stapled-on song is one difference), but this widescreen print is modestly attractive and would probably look more beautiful with some restoration work.

RATING 4 / 10