“The Miracle According to Salome,” vet cinematographer Mario Barroso’s extremely handsome and devilish film debut, hinges on a Madonna phenomenon best known to Portuguese auds. Nonetheless, pic’s easily enjoyed as a superlative and intelligent early 20th century costume drama driven by operatic emotions. Full-blown tragedy, which virtually has not played theatrically outside of Portugal and France, has been strangely absent from the fest circuit until Palm Springs, and will struggle to expand to viewers beyond core European art-film crowds.
In adapting Jose Rodrigues Migueis’ novel, scripter Carlos Saboga shifts away from the book’s emphasis on exposing the scam behind the so-called “Fatima miracle” of 1917, when three peasants claimed they saw the Virgin Mary in a field near Fatima. Phenomenon triggered a national political upheaval exploited by anti-Communist forces.
Though the incident is vividly and surreally depicted here, the film’s focus is on the curious life of Salome, who goes from hooker to rich banker’s wife and is the object of at least three men’s amorous obsessions.
Life in the Lisbon brothel is frisky and fun for Salome (Ana Bandeira), when she isn’t dodging the crazed, drunken advances of Lt. Braz (Filipe Duarte). Meanwhile, idealistic journalist Gabriel (Ricardo Pereira) investigates rumors about a right-wing military coup, which his editor Mota-Santos (Paulo Pires) tries to manipulate behind the scenes with the aid of banker Sertorio Cerqueira (Nicolau Breyner).
The plot deftly counterpoints the turbulent political background with the emotional foreground, as Cerqueira ignores Salome’s profession and wants her as his wife. When Gabriel eyes Salome, a love quadrangle forms with Gabriel, Salome, Cerqueira and Lt. Braz.
Barroso is a long-time lenser for Portuguese grand masters Manoel De Oliveira and Joao Cesar Monteiro. His first feature, however, is staged in a more traditionally costume pic mode than Oliveira’s highly theatrical period work and operates in a much less irreverent key than Monteiro. Rather, pic’s touchstone is director Max Ophuls, with his cynical but sympathetic view of doomed lovers, classical storytelling attitude and love of lush interiors gloriously lit.
Salome’s involvement in the Fatima incident — in which she becomes confused for the Madonna –may play like an odd sideshow to the main event for those not up on 20th century Portuguese history, but “Miracle” never loses sight of its primary concern for the extremes to which the human heart will go.
Bandeira’s intoxicating effect on men is undeniable, and the highly regal yet human Breyner expresses this effect with moving depth. Duarte is all furrowed brows and curled lips, and the handsome Pereira plays his idealist as suitably clueless.
Doubling as d.p., Barroso lenses his film with extreme attention to detail, layering shots with the yellowed tone of aging paper and photos, while entire production shimmers as elegantly as an evening waltz. Pic is Portugal’s official foreign language Oscar entry.