Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Unsung!: The Miracle of Marcelino
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.
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.