Bogdan George Apetri’s “Miracle” is a thriller of deceptive simplicity and paralyzing jolts.
The director of “Unidentified” and “Outbound” mesmerizes us with a tale in two acts, each a sort of day-in-the-life of two different modern Romanians. The first act ends with a brutal crime, the second concerns the tenacious and alarmingly extra-legal efforts of a cop to solve it, or pin the blame on his favored suspect.
It’s a movie of competing religious and rationalist dogmas in which nuns lie and a cynical “prayer won’t help” cop breaks the law. Apetri hides his cards, trips up expectations and manages genuine surprises, something all the more difficult considering the film’s spare story and limited collection of characters.
And its violence, when it comes, is as pitiless as it is discrete.
The young woman (Ioana Bugarin) doesn’t say much. She’s in a novice nun’s habit, and a fellow nun (Nora Covali) lends her a phone and helps her with arrangements. The novice is leaving the convent for the day.
The taxi driver (Valeriu Andriuta) is brusque with her, and turns out to be the helpful nun’s brother. But they talk about music, and in his more frank moments, he lets on how he doesn’t approve of his sister’s choice of vocation. When he adds a second passenger, a doctor (Valentin Popescu), we figure out they’re both going to the hospital, and that unlike the well-heeled doctor, for the novice Cristina the meter isn’t running.
“It wouldn’t be right,” the driver shrugs (in Romanian with English subtitles).
Apetri has our nun-to-be change into street clothes and turn evasive when the doctor grills her about what ails her. Little is said out loud but much is easily inferred and readily understood about her situation, no matter which doctor sees her.
The crime that happens is an assault only glimpsed from afar, sounds of screams half-muffled and lost in the howl of the wind and the bleating of sheep in a nearby pasture.
The movie then shifts to a day with Det. Preda (Emanuel Pardu), a blunt atheist who doesn’t like prevaricating nuns or superior Mother Superiors.
“I don’t need God or prayers or lectures. I need help.”
We hear that he has a suspect, that there’s a time-limit on holding him, and we quickly figure out that Preda is hellbent on not giving up this guy or his certainty that he committed the horrific crime we just witnessed. And he’s sure as hell not “going easy” on the suspect, witnesses or his older, more religious/superstitious subordinate (Ovidiu Crisan).
If the first act of “Miracle” is a tense study in understatement and words left unspoken, the second is a fraught, headlong pursuit of “justice,” with all the shortcuts cops the world use to ensure their version of it is met.
Bugarin plays furtive, guilt-ridden innocence while Parvu is an officious, educated, non-nonsense detective in a china shop — bullying one and all on either side of the law with equal ferocity.
Despite creating these polar opposite characters to anchor the two halves of his movie, Apetri maintains a quiet, consistently probing tone, inviting the viewer to figure things out without spoon-feeding, to ponder fate and justice, guilt and self-righteousness run amok no matter how much or how little action is going on at the time.
The leads are documentary real, and the supporting players, bantering about Romanian decline via the music people listen to or listened to in the past and what it means for their future that the common folk have spearheaded the secular state’s return to Eastern Orthodoxy.
“Miracle” is a sometimes piercing mystery that demands your attention and your engagement, if nothing else than to get one close to figuring out where a “Miracle” fits into all this. I was thrown by directions the story takes and the nature of the crime, which as I mentioned, is mostly seen in snippets from a distance.
But it all makes a sort of twisted sense, and better yet, the stuff that doesn’t fit neatly together gets under your skin in ways your average thriller doesn’t.
Rating: unrated, violence, profanity, smoking
Cast: Ioana Bugarin, Emanuael Parvu, Ovidiu Crisan, Cezar Antal and Nora Covali.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Bogdan George Apetri. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:58