An intense religious drama set during the Pinochet regime and based on a true story, “The Passion of Michelangelo” reps an ambitious sophomore fiction feature for Chilean writer-director Esteban Larrain (“Alicia in the Land”). The helmer’s background in documentary helps lend urgency, immediacy and credibility to the unbelievable tale of a teenage orphan whose supposed contact with the Virgin Mary attracted huge crowds just when the dictatorship needed some popular distraction. Despite an unfocused p.o.v., the pic is a nonetheless a gripping, almost mythical rise-and-fall yarn that could convert small arthouse congregations, some beyond South America.
In 1983 Chile, Miguel Angel (Sebastian Ayala) is a 14-year-old lost soul who, as he himself explains it, was plucked from obscurity by the Virgin, who decided she could talk to the country’s suffering people through him. Somewhat oddly, the Virgin also asks the numerous faithful to pray for Chile’s “best president,” Pinochet.
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Miguel’s frequent communions with the Mater Dei, on a hill near the backwater of Penablanca, quickly become public events, attracting tens of thousands, and featuring not only Mary’s words, but also visions in the sky and stigmata-like bleeding.
The audience’s way into this incredible story is through Father Ruiz Tagle (Patricio Contreras), a practical-minded man of the cloth who has been sent by Church officials to verify the miraculous goings-on. His first stop is the village priest, Father Alcazar (Luis Alarcon), who’s become Miguel Angel’s de facto chaperone. Tagle also visits the outdoor gatherings — which cast the teenager in increasingly fantastical scenarios — as well as the locals, including a communist (Luis Dubo) who sells Virgin Mary statues, a pious woman (Catalina Saavedra, “The Maid”) and her atheist photojournalist husband (Roberto Farias).
The film slowly narrows its initial bird’s-eye view of events as it focuses on Miguel Angel, who’s dubbed Michelangelo after he sees a photo of the Pieta. The camera accompanies the youth as he is driven to meetings in Santiago by government officials, and gathers 12 pint-sized disciples, including his chosen one, Lazaro.
There’s a natural homoeroticism to the rapport between Michelangelo and Lazaro, who are of the same age; somewhat disturbingly, a sexual element also arises in the adored youth’s evolving relationship with the kind-hearted Alcazar, who is not immune to temptation. Larrain’s sense of restraint is key in making it clear that Michelangelo is starting to experiment with his uncontested authority and, more specifically, the power of his allure, even if the young teen is perhaps a long way away from understanding anything about his sexuality.
Not all the events are directly observed by Father Tagle, and though what’s onscreen is often compelling, the lack of a singular, omniscient p.o.v. diffuses the pic’s focus, shortchanging the troubling ties between the junta and the conveniently distracting, religion-induced mass-hysteria (this is no “No,” with its razor-sharp focus on the ties between Chilean politics and advertising).
Newcomer Ayala convincingly captures the slim youth’s agony as well as his ecstasy, and turns Michelangelo into an innocent if approval-hungry creature who becomes a victim of the hype he helped create. Opposite him, Contreras and Alarcon are both so persuasive, it’s a shame the pic doesn’t have more time to dedicate to their characters’ moral and practical conundrums.
Loosely shot on 16mm in earthy tones, “The Passion of Michelangelo” has a documentary directness that helps ground the period story in reality. Costumes by Carolina Espina further help underline the protag’s inner transformations. Title is no doubt also a nod to Michelangelo Antonioni, the subject of Larrain’s 1997 thesis at the U. of Chile.