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KARLOVY VARY – A teenage girl from Slovakia finds herself in a correctional facility against her will in Miracle (Zázrak), the feature debut of documentary filmmaker Juraj Lehotský (the Cannes-selected doc Blind Loves). Playing like a Mitteleuropean Dardenne brothers film, although it lacks the Belgian siblings’ directorial mastery, this bleak but somewhat predictable tale follows a young woman held against her will who’s still madly in love with her drug-fiend boyfriend. Though it may look and sounds familiar, the film does feature a standout performance from newcomer Michaela Bendulová, herself recruited in a reform school much like the one her character attends.
Locally, this should appeal to lovers of documentary-like art house grit, though beyond Central Europe this will have a hard time courting more than festival attention. The film won a special mention in Karlovy Vary’s East of the West competition and Bendulová and Lehotský are indeed talents to watch.
Ela (Bendulová), a 15-year-old girl with sleek long hair and a deceptively open-looking if angular face, is taken to a correctional facility in a pill-induced stupor secretly caused by the new lover (Peter Slivovský) of her mother (Katarína Feldeková). The girl later explains to her newfound peers that, from her perspective, Mom stopped caring for her as soon as the new boyfriend arrived on the scene and from what little we see, it’s hard to argue with that.
It’s never specified whether Ela was just considered too difficult to handle or whether she actually committed a crime, but it’s clear she’s at the institution against her own will. The girl’s confrontations with the management and her roommates further help flesh out not the backstory so much as her immediate emotional response to her current situation: Ela feels caged in, desperately wants to leave and even tries to escape several times. The single person she misses from the outside is her boyfriend, Roby (Robert Roth), who’s twice her age, lives in a garage and is incapable of kicking his drug habit.
The first, well-observed encounter of the couple, after Ela’s successful escape, occurs in the supermarket where Roby works and immediately suggests he’s much more important to her than she is to him. When they have sex in his garage a bit later, she sees love whereas he sees just a way to get a temporary fix without having to resort to drugs.
Though spectacularly incompatible, Ela and Roby are forced to make their relationship work because neither has anyone else they can rely on, with Ela finding out she’s got a health problem and her object of affection up to his neck in debt with his pushers — something Ela, in an act that’s equal parts love and stupidity, thinks she can fix by suggesting to Roby that he sell her services for a night to some shady macho types.
The film, written by the director and Marek Lescák — whose writing credits include Slovak fiction films such as Made in Ash, The City of the Sun and Gypsy as well as documentaries such as The Border and Lehotský’s Blind Loves — does indeed have a documentary feel in its modest but precise execution, though in terms of narrative, the trajectory is mostly a familiar one.
Some of the strongest moments are also the quietest, such as a late scene in which Ela, with vacuous eyes, nods her head twice when asked something by a doctor, not interested in or aware of the enormous impact this will have on the rest of her life. It is in these wordless occasions, especially, that the talent of Bendulová shines through.
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (East of the West)
Production companies: Artileria, Negativ
Cast: Michaela Bendulová, Robert Roth, Katarína Feldeková
Director: Juraj Lehotský
Screenwriters: Juraj Lehotský, Marek Lescák
Producers: Marko Skop, Jan Melis
Director of photography: Noro Hudec
Production designer: Juraj Fábry
Music: Martin Burlas
Costume designer: Erika Gadus
Editor: Marek Sulík
No rating, 78 minutes
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