Thursday, April 8, 2021

Miracle Month goes to Spain: The Miracle of Marcelino

The Miracle of Marcelino

I’ve noticed that children have a clever strategy to keep the lights from going out and stay up a little later. They ask the tough questions during tuck-in time. 

“Why is the sky blue?” “Where do babies come from?” “Why is the ocean near the shore?” If the family is religious, kids learn that theological questions buy even more time. When he was a kid, my nephew Jordan once asked at bedtime, “Who is more powerful? Luke Skywalker or Jesus?”

Marcelino, the 5-year-old title character of The Miracle of Marcelino, knows how to play this game. When the orphan boy is put to bed by the Father Superior of the Franciscan monastery where he lives, he asks difficult questions. When told his mother is in heaven, he asks, “Are all mothers in Heaven?” 

The priest answers, “Well, that is where all mothers go.”

Marcelino says, “Brother Cookie said that even you had a mother.” 

“Yes,” the Father responded, “But she too is in Heaven.” 

“How did she get there?” Marcelino asks.

The priest responds, “By being very good.” 

Okay, I’ve got to call a theological foul here. It would be one thing if your average dad gave that answer trying to get his kid to shut up and get to sleep. But a priest shouldn’t just talk about “being good.” There is more to salvation in Catholic theology than “being good.” Nothing about the Sacraments?  Even more, what about the sacrificial death of Jesus? (These Franciscans don’t talk nearly enough about Jesus. We’ll talk more about this in a bit.)

Then Marcelino asks, “And am I good?” 

Father Superior responds, “Oh yes, you are very good.” 

Naturally, Marcelino asks, “Then when will I go there?” 

Classic kid bedtime strategy. Nothing like asking about death at bedtime to stall that light going off. 

The priest answers, “That depends, Marcelino. Whenever God wants you to.”

A big spoiler here. The “Miracle” of the title is the way in which Marcelino is taken into Heaven -- one of the many things that makes this a very odd film. Jose Maria Sanchez-Silva's screenplay was based on his novel, Marcelino Pan Y Vino (Marcelino Bread and Wine) which was inspired by a medieval legend. The Spanish film was directed by Ladislao Vajda and was a critical and commercial success.

The film opens with a narrator telling of a small village’s feast celebrating a miracle, but one priest can’t attend the feast because he is visiting a sick young girl. He asks the little girl if she knows the story of Marcelino. The father suggests it would be best not to tell the story, but the priest asks the little girl if she would like to hear the story. When she says, “Yes,” he begins.

Long ago, not long after the Franciscan monastery of the village was founded, a baby was found at the door. The brothers are unable to find the boy's parents. The Father Superior then sends the brothers out to find a family that will adopt the child. (Some of the brothers don’t do the best sales job. They tell prospective parents that the child cries through the night and never stops eating. It’s almost as if the brothers want to keep the child themselves.) Failing to find a family, the brothers pledge to be the child's fathers. He is named Marcelino because he was christened on the feast day of that saint.

The boy grows to the age of five and brings great joy and delight to the brothers. But like many small boys, he also causes trouble. He was told never to climb the stairs to the monastery attic, yet he climbed those stairs. Brother Cookie (named this by Marcelino) told him there was a big man upstairs. The first time Marcelino went to the attic, he saw a man and ran down the stairs to the outside.

In time, he returns to the attic and again sees the man. The man looks hungry, so Marcelino goes down to the kitchen and returns with bread for the man to eat.

The audience sees the man upstairs is nailed to a cross. It is a statue, a crucifix with Jesus on the cross. But when Marcelino returns, the man reaches down from the cross to take the bread.

Now this bothers me more than a bit. Even at the age of five, one would expect a boy raised by Franciscan monks would recognize Jesus on the cross. Though the brothers read stories about St. Francis at their meals, we never see the Brothers reading scripture, let alone from the Gospels.

Marcelino continues to visit the living statue of Jesus in the attic, bringing him bread and wine (thus the name was given to the boy “Bread and Wine”) and a blanket. In time, Jesus asks Marcelino what he would like to receive in return for his kindness. Marcelino tells him he wishes to go to Heaven. Jesus tells Marcelino he must sleep and then he will go to Heaven. Marcelino says he isn’t tired. Jesus says that Marcelino can sleep in His arms.

The brothers go up the stairs to look for Marcelino and see the statue of Jesus off the cross with Marcelino in His arms. The statue returns to the cross, and Marcelino is dead.

There aren’t many films that present the death of a child as a happy ending (Pan’s Labyrinth is the only other one that comes to mind). But if one believes the words of the Apostle Paul that “to be with Christ is far better” than life on earth, then this is a happy ending -- strange as it seems to modern audiences. But even accepting Heaven as Marcelino's fate, there would be much grief in the monastery and, one would think, in the town, over the death of a 5-year-old boy.

So what rating should we give to the Franciscan Brothers of The Miracle of Marcelino? They do lose a steeple for their faulty Christian education of their young charge. But they also deserve much credit goes for taking in the baby to raise as their own, earning them a Three Steeple rating.

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