Thursday, April 29, 2021

Miracle Month Concludes: The Virgin of Juarez

The Virgin of Juarez
Stigmata, the miracle showcased in this week's film, isn't a favorite here at Movie Churches. (Stigmata is the appearance of bodily wounds, scars, and pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, such as the hands, wrists, and feet. As mentioned when we looked at The Unholy earlier this month and Final Prayer back in January, stigmata is one of the easier miracles to fake.)

And really, what good does stigmata do for anyone? Healings are obviously very healthy miracles. Exorcisms have unquestionable spiritual benefits. Resurrection? Definitely adds something to life (such as -- literally -- life). Even levitation provides some amusement to the world. But if you believe that Jesus's crucifixion redeemed humanity in one act, there is no need for a repeat performance.

From Francis of Assisi on, the miracle has been recognized, but fraudulent claims have been around for centuries as well. In the 14th century, for example, a Franciscan nun called Magdalena de la Cruz was considered a living saint until shortly before her death, when she confessed that she'd faked her stigmata. 

The stigmata in The Virgin of Juarez is presented as truly supernatural and a hopeful sign in a truly horrific time and place. The film is set in the Mexican border town of Juarez (near El Paso, Texas) at a time when women were being murdered at an alarming rate. (This tragic aspect of the film is based in fact. Between 1993 and 2005, more than 370 women died violently in or around that Juarez. The killings drew international attention because of the perceived lack of government attention to ending the murders or bringing the perpetrators to justice. It seems the film was made in part to draw attention to this injustice.)

Written by Michael Fallon and directed by Keven James Dobson, the film tells the story of an investigative reporter, Karina Danes (Minnie Driver), who goes to Juarez to investigate the murders. While there, she meets Mariela (Ana Claudia Talancon), who survives being raped and buried alive (she was thought to be dead when she was buried). In her hospital bed, Mariela exhibits the signs of stigmata, but Father Herrera (Esai Morales), who also believes that stigmata are a miraculous sign, asserts that the real miracle is her survival. 

Mariela was found in the desert, and she claims to have no memory of being attacked. She only remembers a visitation from the Virgin Mary in the desert. 

Before the police have an opportunity to interview her, Father Herrera takes her from the hospital and hides her in an abandoned church where nuns care for her. As news of the miracle of her survival and the stigmata spreads among the faithful of the community, many come to see her. The police are somehow kept ignorant of the woman’s whereabouts.

Danes learns where Mariela is hidden and goes to visit her, taking along mugshots of suspects from the investigation of the murders (she stole the photos during a visit to the police station). Mariela is quite obviously disturbed by some of the faces she sees but doesn’t admit she recognizes any of the men. However, she has copies of the photos made and distributes them to the faithful pilgrims who come to visit her, many of them families of victims of the murders.

Fearing that the killers will find Mariela, Father Herrera takes her to live with his brother, a member of a gang in Los Angeles. In California, pilgrims continue to visit Mariela. She has such a following that she begins pirate radio broadcasts.

Danes returns to her hometown of Los Angeles and sees a billboard dedicated to the Virgin. She is puzzled by the number “1478” on the poster. Father Herrera has also returned to the City of Angels, and the reporter asks the priest what that mysterious number might represent. The priest feigns puzzlement, saying, “An address? A bank card? The start of the Spanish Inquisition authorized by Pope Sixtus IV in the year of our Lord 1478.” Eventually, he admits it is the frequency of Mariela’s radio transmissions.

Mariela continues to distribute the mugshots of suspects. Back in Juarez, many of these suspects are murdered, with the killers crying out, “In the name of the Virgin!" Some of these murdered suspects had been employed in a large factory in Juarez, and the police and local government take these deaths much more seriously than they had the murders of hundreds of women, to the point that Mariela and the street gang who provide her protection are pursued. 

We see an ominous meeting of law enforcement, businessmen, and government officials with a bishop and other Roman Catholic authorities to discuss how to put a stop to the work of the Virgin of Juarez. There is a coordinated attack on the abandoned church where Mariela is hidden and many of the gang members are killed. Nonetheless, Mariela survives. Danes sees her and assumes that her message will continue. 

The film ends with a title card reading, “Women continue to be abducted and murdered in Juarez.” 

That wasn’t quite true. By the time of the film’s release, the murders had largely ceased. The killings seem to have been a result of a combination of organized crime, drug cartels, sex trafficking, and practices of exploitative labor practices (maquiladoras -- companies that were duty-free and tariff-free but took advantage of cheap labor). International attention seemed to bring an end to the killings, though there was little effective investigation or prosecution of the killers.

So how do the clergy and the church rate in The Virgin of Juarez? Well, we do see church bureaucrats who seem more interested in power than the poor, but we also see clergy like Father Herrera who are concerned about the plight of the exploited and mistreated women of Juarez before many others took any interest. For his sake, we’re giving the priests and nuns of this film Three Steeple rating.

(This is the last of this month’s Miracle Churches, but The Virgin of Juarez provides a nice transition to next month’s theme: Crime Churches.)

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