B&W, 1966, 96 mins. 38 secs.
Directed by Štefan Uher
Starring Jolanta Umecka, Ladislav Mrkvicka, Otakar Janda, Rudolf Thrún Second Run (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL)
After opening the eyes of many viewers to the work of Czechoslovak New Wave director Štefan Uher in 2013 with its release of the wonderful The Sun in a Net, U.K. label Second Run finally brings him to the world of Blu-ray with the surrealistic and visually stunning The Miraculous Virgin (Panna zázra nica), an adaptation of a 1944 novel by Dominik Tatarka (who adapted it himself for the screen).
Enigmatic dream girl Annabella (Knife in the Water's Uher), who has a fondness for wearing black and offering few details about herself, becomes a source of inspiration and upheaval when young artist Tristan (Mrkvicka) brings her into the fold of fellow creatives in his social circle. She has a particular impact on sculptor Raven (Janda) and ignites a series of imaginative, hallucinatory scenarios and a far more slippery grasp on reality.
That's about the most coherent plotline you'll be able to glean from the film, which uses Annabella as the lynch pin for a structure that drifts through a variety of locales ranging from a lake to an abandoned church with sudden visual delights like the artists having a party for her dressed in spooky zodiac animal masks. Particularly vivid is a later sequence involving Annabella and a fiery effigy that Alex Garland must have seen when he made Annihilation, which tips its hat here quite clearly. The film is a radical departure from the more straightforward and realistic depiction of Uher's more famous preceding film, not unlike what Louis Malle did when he suddenly threw Black Moon into the world. Evidently the film was not a roaring success when it was first released (and English-language distributors weren't exactly lining up to snap up the rights), but it has aged remarkably well as a free-flowing river of dreamlike images tied around the concept of artistry and its place in the real world.
As mentioned above, the Second Run release marks this film's first Blu-ray appearance with the film itself presented from a new 2K restoration conducted by the Slovak Film Institute. The LPCM mono audio has also been rejuvenated quite nicely, and the optional English subtitles (there isn't a ton of dialogue) are also solid. On the extras side, Uher's 1959 short film "Marked for Darkness" (16m50s) takes an eerie, expressionist look at blindness through an evocative combination of classical music and striking images evoking other sense, particularly touch. "The Story of The Miraculous Virgin" (24m6s) features an assemblage of scholars like Professor Vaclav Macek, Albert Marencin and Martin Sulik discussing the film's genesis, the influence of Italian Neorealism, the commentary on art and reality running through films like this and The Organ, the development of the sculptures in the film, and the political commentary he managed to slip into his work. Finally, "Looking for Annabella" (2m34s) is a very brief archival snippet about the lead actress. The insert booklet features a new essay by Michal Michalovi, which is definitely recommended as it places this film in clearer context against the director's most immediate two prior features and goes into quite a bit of detail about the source novel and its adaptation as well.