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Imagine, if you can, a rustic Neapolitan fairy tale directed in the style of the Italian neorealism films of the forties and you have a pretty good idea of what to expect in More Than a Miracle (1967), a gorgeously filmed fantasy-romance that was more appropriately titled Cinderella, Italian Style in Europe. Sophia Loren, who has rarely looked more beautiful, plays Isabella, a poor peasant girl who falls in love with the handsome but arrogant Prince Rodrigo. Knowing she can't compete with the seven aristocratic princesses vying to become Rodrigo's bride, Isabella resorts to witchcraft with the help of a mischievous crone. But the love spell they cast on Rodrigo doesn't quite work (he is temporarily frozen in mid-meal, unable to lower his hand from his mouth) and Isabella eventually realizes she must win him without the aid of magic.
Loren's husband, producer Carlo Ponti, wanted to make sure that More Than a Miracle would have a broad international appeal and cast the film accordingly. Dolores del Rio, the exotic Mexican beauty who enjoyed Hollywood stardom during the thirties, was selected for her marquee value and glamorous appearance (she plays the prince's marriage-minded mother) but the rest of the cast were relatively unknown Italian actors except for Omar Sharif, who was chosen to play the prince. At the time, Sharif was at the height of his popularity thanks to his performance in Doctor Zhivago (1965) plus Sharif and Loren had previously worked well together in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). For a brief time, Loren was even considered as Sharif's love interest in Doctor Zhivago before Julie Christie won the role. Yet even though Loren was happily married to Ponti, the tabloids were still full of speculations about a possible off-screen romance between the two stars during filming.
Although More Than a Miracle is set in 17th century Italy, the movie was actually shot in the countryside surrounding Naples, the city where Loren spent her childhood. The choice of Francesco Rosi for director was an unusual one since his previous features were serious dramas with social and political themes (Salvatore Giuliano (1961), Hands Over the City, 1963) and were obviously influenced by such neorealism classics as The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Umberto D. (1952). Yet Rosi clearly demonstrates a flair for the fantastic in More Than a Miracle and even manages to smuggle in some of his previous thematic concerns in his depiction of the huge gulf between the aristocratic and peasant classes. In the biography Sophia by Stefanio Masi and Enrico Lancia, Rosi envisioned Isabella as "a farm girl with all of the naivete and cunning of a woman of the people. Sophia gave a distinguished portrayal of her. She's a great worker....You can ask any sacrifice of her. I remember that I asked her to always perform barefoot. Keep in mind that the ground she had to walk on with her bare feet was rough and rugged. Sophia has very beautiful feet. She was very patient: she moved forward fearlessly, as if she had walked barefoot all her life. Sometimes her feet would bleed, but she didn't complain. Unlike many Neapolitans, Sophia never complains."
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." But the film itself is not a typical fairy tale at all and it's a little too bawdy for children what with Sophia's tight peasant blouses on the verge of popping open or odd scatological humor like the famous urine cure scene at the nunnery (yes, you read that correctly). The only aspect of the film that generated any buzz at all were the peasant outfits worn by Sophia in the film (they were designed by Giulio Coltellacci); their natural, free-flowing quality actually influenced mainstream fashion at the time which quickly glamorized the rustic rag-tag look.
Producer: Carlo Ponti
Director: Francesco Rosi
Screenplay: Tonino Guerra, Raffaele La Capria, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, Francesco Rosi
Art Direction: Piero Poletto
Cinematography: Pasqualino De Santis
Editing: Jolanda Benvenuti
Costume Design: Giulio Coltellacci
Music: Piero Piccioni
Cast: Sophia Loren (Isabella), Omar Sharif (Prince), Dolores del Rio (Queen Mother), Georges Wilson (Monzu), Leslie French (Brother Joseph), Marina Malfatti (Devout Princess), Rita Forzano (Greedy Princess).
C-104m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford