Rigorously monastic in both setting and execution, “Quam Mirabilis” spins a story of Bressonian simplicity about two cloistered nuns whose love flowers only to be crushed. Made for a meager $ 32,000, first feature by Alberto Rondalli (a student of Ermanno Olmi’s film school) brings a hint of scholarliness to its austere formality but is a solemnly affecting, potent ensemble piece that should accrue admiration at festival showings.
Imposingly lensed by Rondalli in black-and-white, and punctuated by a series of unaccompanied 12th- and 13th-century religious chants sung by a single female voice (pic’s Latin title comes from the first line of one of them), the film’s most resounding merit is its ability to travel the tortuous contours of souls and minds using rarely more then a murmur of dialogue.
The narrative unfolds as a sustained flashback from the deathbed of Anna (Giada Balestrini), revealing her first inklings of religious conviction while praying with her mother as a child, her entry into the convent and her rapport with the other nuns, a group presence that hovers uncertainly somewhere between solidarity and insidiousness.
The suicide of a mentally unstable nun signals the end of Anna’s novitiate serenity and her first manifestations of spiritual doubt. The gloomy, taciturn spell lasts until the arrival of new recruit Sister Natalie (Valeria Bugatto). The slow-kindling passion between them is delicately sketched, but conveys the longing beneath their stilted behavior.
When convent tongues start wagging, Anna is reprimanded, and Natalie looks set to be shunted off to another nunnery. The lovers takeflight for one night of ecstasy (seen only in luminous afterglow) before being rounded up the next morning.
The film opens and closes with the same series of shots in and around the rustic convent, framing windows, doors, alcoves and a tree-lined lane as mournfully expressive, if somewhat studied, bookends. Though the stark setting is brought too heavily into play in establishing the characters’ emotional states, Rondalli’s compositions are consistently arresting without being overly structured.
Cast is uniformly strong, with all seven thesps playing nuns admirably eschewing performance in favor of veiled suggestion.