Monday, November 9, 2009

Feel Good Movies: A Delightful Italian Neorealism Variation of Cinderella - "More than a Miracle" (1967)

I fell head over heels in love with this movie in 1967. I saw it 6 or 7 times, immersing myself into its charming and delightfully different reworking of the basic Cinderella tale. In Italy it was titled Cinderella Italian Style; however, a prince seeking a bride and a peasant girl longing for a better life are the only similarities to the original. The eclectic mix of fairy tale elements, including flying monks and an ancient sorceress, royal romantic intrigue, unexpected moments of comedy and drama, the charisma and lusty chemistry between Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif, a lovely musical score and sweeping vistas of the starkly beautiful Naples countryside proved to be a thoroughly soul-satisfying movie-going experience that did not diminish with multiple viewings.

More than a Miracle was the brainchild of Sophia Loren's husband, producer Carlo Ponti, who envisioned a film which would appeal to an international audience. Omar Sharif, whose star power had increased following his performance in Doctor Zhivago, was chosen to play the devastatingly handsome, but arrogant, Prince Rodrigo. Ponti's choice of director Francesco Rosi. however, was startling. His previous films, Salvatore Guiliano (1961) and Hands Over the City (1963) incorporated the Italian neorealism themes of social and political injustice created by the ever-increasing disparity between the classes, exemplified in the classics The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. Amazingly, amidst the fantasy and magic, Rosi effectively applied the socioeconomic tenets of neorealism to the relationship between Sharif's prince and Loren's peasant girl, and the painfully obvious difference in their social status, which almost derails the requisite happily ever after ending.

The hoped-for happy conclusion of this fractured fairy-tale is attained after a series of unusual events triggered by Prince Rodrigo's failure to obey an order from the King of Spain to find a wife. He escapes from the meddling of his marriage minded mother, riding his magnificent white horse at breakneck speed, resulting in a tumble out of the saddle. He walks to a monastery where he gets advice from one of the friars about finding a wife and is offered a method of choosing the right one. While looking for his horse, he encounters the strong-willed peasant girl Isabella. He finds himself attracted to this earthy beauty and decides to subject her to the friar's test. It looks like she will fulfill the requirements when she makes a disqualifying mistake. Rodrigo is furious with her for not completing the task, and decides to punish her. His plan is to pretend he is dead and then disappear. The horrified Isabella acquires a spell to bring him back to life, but misreads the formula, resulting in an immobilized Rodrigo, his entire body frozen like a statue. Various bizarre concoctions are used in an attempt to counter the spell, including an ammonia-scented, warm yellow liquid. However, it takes a kiss from Isabella to release him from the curse. A revived Rodrigo wreaks his revenge on Isabella by locking her in a large wooden barrel and rolling it down a hill towards the sea; however, she is rescued by a a rag-tag gang of beach urchins. A repentant Isabella abandons the black arts and obtains a position in Rodrigo's household as a laundress, hoping to win his love on her own merits. She doesn't realize how close she is to attaining her goal as Rodrigo already harbors a deep affection for her, which soon evolves into the love of Isabella's dreams. Of course the issues of her lower class status and his mother's staunch opposition to such a union must be resolved. Rodrigo concocts what seems to be a perfect solution: He organizes a dish-washing contest among the 7 prospective brides and declares that he will marry the woman who breaks the least amount of dishes, knowing that their lily white hands have never come in contact with dish water. He disguises Isabella as a princess certain that she will be the winner and his bride. As predicted, Isabella is far ahead of the others, when inexplicably her dishes start to break in half. Her momentum is disrupted and she becomes increasingly frantic as the breakage continues to diminish her lead. She is ultimately defeated by a pampered aristocrat who had never worked a day in her life! Rodrigo is stunned and infuriated by this unexpected turn of events and publicly denounces Isabella, his rage blinding him to the possibility of sabotage. A despondent Isabella flees from Rodrigo's anger and contemplates drowning herself, but is convinced by the gentle friar from the monastery, now a saintly presence, to return to Rodrigo and reveal the conniving contest winner who used her diamond ring to weaken the stability of Isabella's stack of plates. The lovers are reconciled and their engagement is announced with much fanfare as they walk arm in arm through the crowd, aware of nothing except the love in each other's eyes.

In his TCM article on More than a Miracle, Jeffrey Stafford wrote:

“When More Than a Miracle opened theatrically, it was well received by most Italian film critics but failed to find an audience outside its own country. Maybe the mixture of flying monks and jousting tournaments and cackling witches and dishwashing contests (a major set piece towards the film’s climax) was just too eclectic for American moviegoers. Either that or sixties audiences felt they were too hip for an old-fashioned fairy tale. The Time magazine reviewer probably said it best: ‘That anybody would bother these days to make so slender and fanciful a film is a miracle in itself; to do it with such a profusion of visual beauty is More than a Miracle’ "(Stafford,TCM, Par. 4)
The fact that I had never considered myself even remotely hip may have been the reason I found comfort and joy in this "lost" (not available on VHS or DVD) component of Sophia Loren's filmography. Those who ignored this film robbed themselves of the opportunity to see Sophia's radiant and lighthearted performance and a chance to marvel at her incredibly vibrant beauty. I may have been an audience of one, but I was more than willing to suspend disbelief and bask in the whimsical glow of this enchanting film.


  1. Saz - I don't even know about this film and I thought I knew the 60s! Sounds very interesting and I'm going to try to track it down. Thanks!

  2. Once upon a time there was a charming movie that entranced a lovely lady and captivated her heart. She shared its heartwarming story with hundreds of people who delighted in hearing about it. Even those who never heard this tale before were enchanted. One of them tried to find the DVD but were unsuccessful. She also tried to find the movie listed on TCM. There is a nice writeup about it this month but the film isn't listed on the viewing schedule. If the lovely lady who posted this delightful review should happen to hear of the film's availability for viewing or sale, will she please post information about it? Thank you, dear Saz! The end.

  3. One "was" unsuccessful is grammatically correct. Sorry!

  4. Saz, I also had not heard of this movie, but it sounds like one I would enjoy. Sophia could be very charming and, though I'm not a big Omar fan, he could turn on the charisma, too. Is the music in the video montage from the movie? I noticed that several sites mentioned a Roger Williams piece from a movie called MORE THAN A MIRACLE. Is that what's playing the video? Whoever did it, it's quite lovely.

  5. Saz, I have not seen this film. Sophia has one of the best laughs on screen. Thank you for your wonderful review.