Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Unsung!: The Miracle of Marcelino

Hundreds of thousands of parochial school kids who saw this film in school or Sunday school over the last fifty years were inspired by it.

My take is a little different. I am going to hell.

I certainly want to tread lightly here, given that this is Holy Week and all. This is my “Easter column!” You see, I was raised a Catholic. I attended Catholic school — eight years under the cross and proud of it — back when the nuns were allowed to hit you, usually with a metal ruler, but anything within arm’s reach would suffice. Yes, I am a proud Catholic and actually have the scars to prove it.

My introduction to the 1955 Spanish film Miracle of Marcelino was circuitous, to say the least. My brother-in-law originally told me about it back in 2004. He went on and on about how he had seen it in grammar school and that it had made a lasting impression on him. (Kind of like how the nuns left a lasting impression on me.) My brother-in-law was preparing to teach CCD (Catholic Sunday school) and wanted to show it to his classes. He wondered if I could find him a copy.

So I prayed.

Just kidding — I only ever pray for bad things to happen to my enemies — I went on the internets (a divinely-inspired series of tubes) and I discovered that a brand spankin’ new DVD was set to be released that year, remastered and with new subtitles. I bought my brother-in-law a copy for Christmas. I also bought myself a copy; after his big build-up, I was dying to see this inspiring film.
Miracle of Marcelino is one of the scariest films I have ever seen. Seriously, Rusty Nails should add this film to the lineup of his next 24-hour horror movie marathon — it would cause so many audience members to run screaming from the theater. Rusty could easily resell their seats!

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Marcelino is a little orphan boy being raised in a Catholic monastery in Spain. He is a mischievous, curious boy and is always getting into trouble. The monks warn Marcelino never to go into the attic (A-Ha! Horror Movie Trope #1!); apparently something frightening hides up there. Marcelino disobeys, of course, but only discovers some typical attic effluvium (aka “monk junk”)… oh, and a huge statue of a crucified Jesus Christ. Marcelino thinks “the man” looks hungry and brings him bread and wine—in fact, the film’s original Spanish title is Marcelino: Pan y Vino.

(At this point I pause to wonder why, in the five or six years he has been LIVING IN A MONESTARY, Marcelino has never been taught who Jesus was.)

Jesus comes down from the cross and shares a meal with Marcelino in the attic. The two chat. Jesus discovers that Marcelino wants, more than anything else, to be reunited with his mother. Jesus vows to make Marcelino’s wish a reality.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Pablito Calvo gives one of the sweetest, most unaffected child performances I have ever seen. That is reason alone to see this film.

I cannot be alone in regarding this film as one of the lost Universal Monster films of the Silver Age. The expressionistic, black and white cinematography in Miracle of Marcelino puts John Meskal’s work in Bride of Frankenstein and Karl Freund’s work in The Mummy to shame. Both the art direction in the attic and Miracle of Marcelino’s incessant use of high key lighting hearken back to the German expressionist films of the 1920s that also inspired the Universal Monster series. As a style and tone, expressionism is often used to effectively convey the uncanny. For instance, in Dracula, it underscores Dracula’s presence as a charismatic, undead soul-stealer. In Miracle of Marcelino, it underscores Jesus’ presence as a… holy shit!

Miracle of Marcelino’s musical score is so bombastic, religious, and over-the-top that it too is frightening. I believe that the filmmakers intended the music during the “Stone Jesus Transforms into Real Jesus” scene to be inspirational, but it is eerily similar to the music accompanying Lon Chaney Jr.’s transformations in The Wolf Man.

CAVEAT: I have always found religious music frightening, and I am sure that I am not the only one. The makers of The Omen certainly knew what they were doing by layering in all that creepy organ and choir holy music. Any and all liturgical music reminds me of the music playing in the Catholic mausoleum where my father is interred — truly one of the scariest places on earth.

Miracle of Marcelino inspires many people. It terrifies me! How can something be inspirational and terrifying at the same time? Simple — both the stuff of religion and the stuff of horror address our fascination with the unknown and the unknowable. We fear the unknown, but we are drawn to the mystery. Fear of the unknown has been religion’s calling card for centuries.

SPOILER ALERT! A BIG PROBLEM WITH THE ENDING: You certainly don’t have to be a (Catholic) rocket scientist to figure out how this movie ends. Jesus grants little Marcelino’s wish in the most “Twilight Zone” way imaginable. Marcelino dies. Hooray for Jesus! Now Marcelino can be reunited with his mother in heaven! But wait — why couldn’t Jesus just bring the mother back to life instead? Does that go against some sort of messed-up “it’s a one-way door” Jesus rule? How about giving Marcelino a tour of heaven and then bringing him back to earth before suppertime? (“Bread and wine — AGAIN?”)

Maybe I am ignoring one possible interpretation of the film. The monks warn Marcelino not to go up in the attic; they imply that there is some sort of bogeyman up there to keep Marcelino out. What if that WASN’T Jesus? I know from my strict, Catholic upbringing that Satan is a consummate manipulator and a master of disguise — he can take many forms (a snake, a mist, Michael Bay). Could Marcelino have been feeding bread and wine… to Satan? Well, then Marcelino got what he deserved. Perhaps the film should be retitled Bad Boy Marcelino or My Dinner With Mephistopheles.

Oh, I almost forgot! The entire story is bookended by a prologue and epilogue in which a Catholic monk, many years later, tells this inspiring story to a bedridden little girl who is gravely ill. Because this is just the type of story to tell a tiny, terminal child: “Why, Marcelino was perfectly healthy, struck up a friendship with Jesus, and DIED. Jesus loves the little children… He takes them to Heaven ALL THE TIME.” Religion can be such a comfort.

So I am suggesting that this is one of the most unsung horror films ever made, though its rough plot outline is almost a cliché. We are warned to stay out of the attic. We ignore the warnings. What is up there eventually kills someone. You really need to see Miracle of Marcelino; it will either give you a new lease on life or scare the shit out of you. And after all, isn’t that what religion is all about?

Miracle of Marcelino
is available on DVD and (if you speak Spanish and do not need subtitles or dubbing) on YouTube.


  1. This movie sounds incredible. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. Yes... it is... incredible. One thing I forgot to mention in the column: it is slow as all get out. It takes a FULL HOUR for little Marcelino to go in the attic. Sheesh.

  3. Holy shit! This takes me back to my childhood growing up in a Marist-run Catholic School in my homeland of El Salvador named after the founder of the Marist Brothers, Saint Marcellin ('Marcelino' in Spanish) Champagnat. I was the altar boy at school and my local church for almost a decade (and no, "that" didn't happen). Up until age 15 I was convinced that I would become a priest as my vocation, that's how deeply religious and Catholic I was. Then both the 'girls' thing and the 'common sense' thing kicked in and, over the next few years, I lost the faith. As a deeply committed Atheist now (but, like Bill Maher says, I'm only 99% sure of it because if I said I'm 100% sure there is no God I'd be as intolerant as the religious people pushing God to the rest of us) I look back with fondness at my Catholic upbringing as an innocence-filled period of my life in which I allowed myself to believe in something bigger than my own being. The 'Catholic Guilt' thing is a bitch to deal with though, especially when watching stuff like "Cannibal Holocaust." ;-P

    But back to "Marcelino: Pan y Vino," which is the name I remember the movie by. Of course they showed it at my school (with a 16mm projector at the indoor auditorium that could only hold a class of students at the time) but I only remember seeing it once when I was in sixth grade or so. The Marist brothers (Jesuits actually) didn't tell us what we were gonna watch, just that each class would march to the auditorium when their turn came and watch something, which we knew was special because we were gonna skip a couple of classes. We whispered and speculated, especially since the Marists ordered the classes that went before us not to tell anything about what they had seen to the classes that hadn't seen it.

    So, between the expectation game of not knowing and the fact we were good (well, most of us) Catholic boys in a deeply religious Catholic country/culture watching a well-made movie (in Spanish too, which was a pretty big deal) "Marcelino" scored a direct hit with us, impressionable youngsters. I remember like if I saw it yesterday that you never see Jesus' face speaking, only the hands coming down from the cross to touch Marcelino or pick the food/drinks he brings (which defied physics but hey, that's the Son of God doing it!). The calm, understanding and kind voice of Jesus speaking Spanish to Marcelino was so soothing for a young believer like myself at the time, just exactly what I thought my savior sounded like (i.e. he spoke Spanish!). I also remember a close-up of a face or an eye in total shock from one of the monks as the statue of Jesus disappears and/or vanishes before the eyes of the group that finds Marcelino's body. A simple dissolve effect, but man it felt and was powerful.

    That one viewing of "Marcelino" (which I haven't thought of in decades) is as memorable and burned into my mind as the one and only time I've seen "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." Both are powerful cinematic experiences that came at the right time for my developing psyche. And, like JB with "Hugo," now that it's all come back to me at once I don't know if I want to revisit "Marcelino" and find out that my memories of it cover an average and preachy Spanish '55 movie cashing in on a Catholic audience's already-proven willingness to believe.

    JB, I said it before and I'll say it again (especially after reading this, your best 'Unsung' Column yet): WATCH VICTOR ERICE's "THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE," (available on Hulu.com and on Criterion DVD). It touches on so many things that you discussed here (particularly the connection to the Universal Monster movies) and has an even better child performance in Ana Torrent. I couldn't recommend it any higher, especially after this lovely trip down my long-repressed past. :')

    1. Thanks for the kind words and your memories, JM. I thought while I was writing this that it would somehow be up your alley. Spirit of the Beehive currently resides on my DVR. I recorded it the last time TCM showed it. I plan on watching it soon.

    2. Looking forward to your thoughts on it sir (if they're deemed appropriate-enough to merit some writing). :-)

  4. I grew up not Catholic, but PENTECOSTAL (dun dun DUUUUUN) so I can definitely identify with the looming horror of religion. We couldn't even drink or say a four letter word without the threat of hellfire, let alone do anything truly fun, like have sex outside of marriage. This movie sounds TERRIFYING to me.

    As I was reading it (and laughing so hard I could barely breathe) I turned to my wife Bree, who teaches Spanish, and asked her if she'd ever heard of The Miracle of Marcelino. To which she replied "oh, you mean Marcelino: Pan Y Vino?" Apparently she saw it in 2002 in her Spanish cinema class in Spain, which apparently means that it's being taught as some sort of notable cinematic achievement...or at least something culturally relevant or worthy of discussion to the Spanish speaking world.

    I NEVER want to see this movie. EVER. The shadow of fear-based religion looms large, and this sounds like too much. When I read that Jesus comes down off the cross and shares a meal with Marcelino, my stomach flopped all the way down to my feet.

    I don't even know how to end this. I'm freaked out just thinking about this movie. I'll consider this column to be a warning and stay far, far away from this Miracle.

  5. Still sounds less slow than the INTERMINABLE Francis of Assisi from 1961, which I watched twice in my Catholic education. There's a religious epic that I refuse to believe is only 105 minutes.

    Also, echoing Vargas on Spirit of the Beehive. I'm not sure it's a particularly great movie, but it has some interesting things to say about movies and monsters.