Evocative if occasionally sluggish Russian drama "The Miracle."

A question of faith prompts an existential and political crisis for Soviet bureaucrats in the evocative if occasionally sluggish Russian drama “The Miracle,” from vet helmer Alexander Proshkin. Based on a real event that exists somewhere between conspiracy theory and urban myth, the story of a woman paralyzed by a religious icon is well known among Russian citizens of all ages and will appeal to a local arthouse niche. Abroad, the pic will appeal to fests slots with a Euro slant.

Set in 1956, in the fictional provincial city of Grechansk (the real event allegedly happened in Samara)the yarn unfolds during Nikita Khrushchev’s reign, as the Soviet Union emerged from its most totalitarian and paranoid phase. At a latenight party, drunken reveler Zoya (Maria Burova) is stood up by her fiance; to compensate, she grabs an icon from the wall and dances with it. Without explanation, the still-breathing woman is frozen to the spot. Attempts to move Zoya from her house or to remove the icon from her grasp are made, to no avail.

Cynical Moscow journalist Nikolai Artemyev (an excellent Konstantin Khabensky of “Nightwatch” and “Daywatch”) is sent by his editor to investigate. Though he’s given the runaround by local bureaucrats, Artemyev realizes the rumored event is being suppressed by the Soviet government because the atheist state fears a religious revival.

The opening 45 minutes, which follow Artemyev’s investigation, pack a strong sense of intrigue. When the journalist returns home to Moscow, other characters — a priest (Viktor Shamirov) and a religious official (Proshkin regular Sergey Makovetsky, haunting) — come to the fore. But then the film enters a sort of narrative limbo, as if waiting for Artemyev to reappear. He never does, and the pic never fully recovers. Both Shamirov and Makovetsky take turns at becoming the film’s central focus, but neither emerges from the shadow of Khabensky’s riveting perf.

While Russian auds will be familiar with the story, the disclosure that the pic is based on a true story is withheld until the end; revealing this at the film’s outset would be more beneficial for international auds.

The film’s dry wit is typified by a shot of a goldfish “watching” a TV broadcasting Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing the personality cult around Stalin. Helming by Proshkin (“Live and Remember,” “The Captain’s Daughter”) is solid but hampered by some of the script’s less convincing inventions, such as a coincidence linking the journalist and the frozen girl.

Lensing by father-son cinematography team Gennady and Alexander Karyuk catches the drab atmosphere of the times. Other tech credits meet Russian commercial standards.

The Miracle

Russia

Production

A Central Partnership presentation of an Amkart Studio production in association with the Russian Ministry of Culture. (International sales: Central Partnership, Moscow.) Produced by Ruben Dishdishyan, Aram Movsesyan, Sergey Danielyan, Yury Moroz. Directed by Alexander Proshkin. Screenplay, Yury Arabov.

Crew

Camera (color), Gennady Karyuk, Alexander Karyuk; art director, Ekaterina Tatarskaya; sound (Dolby Digital), Evgeny Slivchenko. Reviewed at Vladivostok Film Festival (opener), Sept. 19, 2009. (Also in Pusan Film Festival -- World Cinema; Moscow Film Festival.) Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Konstantin Khabensky, Polina Kutepova, Sergey Makovetsky, Maria Burova, Vitaly Kischenko, Anna Ukolova, Viktor Shamirov.

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