Sebastián Lelio on truth and fiction in his film “The Miracle”. The Catholic does not want to preach, but to touch emotionally.
In 1862, 13 years had passed since the Great Famine in Ireland. An English war nurse (Florence Pugh) is sent to a remote Midlands village to look after an eleven-year-old girl whose family claims she has eaten nothing but “manna” for four months. A miracle or a hoax?
The rational sister encounters a devout community that puts religion above the health of the child. “The Miracle” is the name of the latest film by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio. He became internationally known with his feature film “Gloria”, which ran in the 2013 Berlinale competition. He was there in 2017 with his trans* drama “A Fantastic Woman” represented, for which he won an Oscar in 2018.
In The Miracle, Lelio engages in a struggle between rationality and superstition that, despite its 19th-century history, feels remarkably contemporary. “The Miracle” is available on Netflix from Thursday.
taz: Mr. Lelio, your film begins behind the scenes, an actress speaks directly to the audience. “We are nothing without stories and invite you to believe this one.” Why the break?
Sebastian Lelio: The Miracle is about how belief systems collide, science versus superstition, and facts are questioned or simply negated. And I wanted to mark the film itself as part of the problem. The audience should not get lost in the story and the characters, but rather perceive the film as a construct. I want the viewer to be aware that it’s an illusion. What do we believe, not only in film but in life in general?
Why does faith have such power?
Film director, born in 1974 in Mendoza, Argentina, grew up in Chile. He studied film at the Escuela de Cine de Chile.
Because it is based on the assumption of an absolute truth, while science is characterized by doubt, constantly checking and adapting. Faith condenses into stories that often last for hundreds of years. Whether patriarchy, religion or ideologies: storytelling is everywhere. In extreme cases, it leads to fanaticism. The beginning of my film is therefore like a contract with the audience: Don’t take everything that is presented to you at face value. The mechanics of the film aren’t that different from those used by the characters themselves. We all follow beliefs and ideologies, often unconsciously.
This alienation effect by Bertolt Brecht has something theatrical about it…
On stage, too, the Brechtian V-effect problematizes what the audience sees. What the characters go through is just part of it, it’s all about how you connect yourself to what you’re being shown. This relationship is more important than the fictitious. The characters are not real, but what they represent is. So I’ll start with a film set today and then slowly pan to ‘1862’, declaring it to be a reconstruction of something that cannot be captured. It’s not the past of 1862, it’s something that keeps happening, even today. And will continue to happen if we don’t change the patriarchal structures. Back then, people were certainly more trapped in a system that hardly allowed them any freedom without being ostracized or persecuted. Today there are no more excuses. We have to be aware that ideas can be changed. In Iran, this is happening very impressively.
Do you see filmmaking as a means of enlightenment?
I really hope that I’m not preaching or teaching with my film. I see it more as offering a complex experience that touches emotionally, not pedagogically. In Godard’s sense: thinking in the form of a spectacle. I want to make cinema that goes to the gut before it gets to the head.
Your films usually focus on female protagonists, whether in “Gloria”, “A Fantastic Woman” or just here. Because female characters are more interesting?
I have a hard time with the statistics of my own filmography. It’s not a programmatic decision, it results from what moves and excites me. As we Filmed Gloria in 2012, no one thought of focusing on an inconspicuous middle-aged woman who would only appear as a supporting character in other films. I didn’t know if it would work either, if anyone would want to see it, but that’s exactly what drove me. And still does.
You were born in Chile in 1974 and grew up there. To what extent did your biographical and cultural distance to this world in rural Ireland in the 19th century help you to find your own perspective on it?
When I first read Emma Donoghue’s novel, all I saw was a minefield. How to take the discussed topics seriously and at the same time make a film that is enjoyable? The risk of failure was immense. But then I focused on the two women, the nurse and the girl, each struggling for individual freedom and facing external demands. I immediately felt connected to that. And I was interested in the dynamics of this oppressive society, with the men at the top who dictate what is right and what is wrong, all under the umbrella of the church and its narrative. It didn’t feel that far removed from my childhood in Chile during the dictatorship in the 1980s, which was also Catholic, especially in the south of the country, which in many ways resembled Ireland. Apart from the peculiarities of the specific story, I knew the structures and dynamics very well.
To what extent have you suffered personally as a result of the church or religion?
Let’s put it this way: I am a Catholic who has deconstructed myself. I was born in a Catholic country. I asked myself early on, what if I had grown up in India? It’s all stories that shape us and according to which we live and act. And why do we still need them today? Can we perhaps invent better ones that are more inclusive and support our development instead of restricting it? In the United States, we have just seen abortion rights set back half a century at an alarming rate.
Does growing up in a Catholic culture help as a filmmaker?
In any case, faith and guilt are central themes in cinema, so probably yes. And Catholics, of course, are well versed in miracles and spectacles. That has fascinated me since I was a boy. How we give meaning to two pieces of wood nailed together in a cross because we are projecting a story onto them. The same thing happens in the cinema. There is only light and shadow on the screen, the film is only charged with meaning in the viewer, with all his fears and longings. But in the end it’s mechanisms. Religion and cinema are illusion machines.