The Miraculous Virgin
Štefan Uher's surrealist caper makes some wry observations about censorship, but it isn't quite the mind-blowing journey it promises
Adapted from Dominik Tatarka's 1944 novel set during the wartime pro-Nazi Slovak Republic, and updated by Tatarka two decades later to speak to a new authoritarian credo gripping the country – Communism this time – Štefan Uher's 1966 film is a kaleidoscope of surrealist image-making and philosophising about love, sex, death and art. Especially art. Technically speaking the primary artistic influence is not surrealism but nadrealist, a specifically Slovak variant pioneered by the country's poets. But Uher's visuals owe so much to the work of the surrealists that it's easier to just stick with that term.
A free-wheeling cast of characters come and go, among them domineering mothers, oily bureaucrats and self-aggrandising politicians, but the central trio is Tristan, a young painter living in a rooftop studio space; Raven, an older sculptor who earns his money making death masks; and Anabella, played by Polish actress Jolanta Umecka (star of Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water). A mysterious young woman dressed in black who arrives in the city by train, Anabella becomes a combination of muse, lust object and deity for Tristan, Raven and the rest of their circle of artists and poets.
Uher's 1963 film The Sun in a Net is one of the founding works of the Czech New Wave. The Miraculous Virgin, however, has long been considered a lesser work and it's easy to see why: the director started out as a neorealist and it feels as if his heart isn't really in this surrealist caper. Sure he puts the stark black and white photography of regular cinematographer Stanislav Szomolányi to good use in a series of early set-pieces and Tatarka's updated screenplay makes some wry observations about censorship, but if it's a mind-blowing journey through a fantastical dreamscape that you want, check out Wojciech Has's 1973 film The Hourglass Sanatorium instead.
There's an illuminating new documentary (in Czech) about Uher and the making of The Miraculous Virgin featuring his former collaborators and students. Also included are a contemporary featurette about the casting of Anabella, plus Uher's 1959 short film, Marked By Darkness.