A friar walks from his monastery into the small town nearby, passing all the townsfolk heading the other way for a celebration – only the sick or infirm have remained behind. They call out friendly greetings, ask him to bless a newborn baby, which he does. At his destination he is welcomed by two worried parents, their young daughter seriously ill. The friar offers to tell the story of Marcelino, a story that will do the poor girl much good – a story for her parents to hear as well.
He describes the establishment of his monastery, a boon granted by the former mayor of the town to three Franciscans against the advice of his deputy. The friars begin to repair the ruins of a grand old building near the town, and the generous mayor even sends men to help them in their work. In time the friars are settled into their simple life, until their routines are disrupted by the discovery of a baby abandoned on their doorstep. They name him Marcelino after the one who found him, and the friars fall over themselves to take care of their visitor – perhaps too much so, as the Father Superior sees them begin to fail in their duties, if for excusable reasons.
The Father instructs them first to seek out the baby’s mother, but without success, then to seek a suitable foster family, with similar results. Eventually he undertakes the mission himself, finding a willing figure in the Mayor’s deputy; but witnessing the man’s cruelty and realising his selfish reasons for accepting the charge the Father retracts his request, earning the deputy’s hatred. Instead, and to the delight of his brothers, the Father decides Marcelino will be raised at the monastery.
Six years later, Marcelino is an innocent rascal, forever getting into trouble and playing pranks on the friars, whom he has renamed for their duties or personalities. To a man the friars have embraced their new titles, to the extent that they are now the only names used amongst them: Brother Cookie, Brother Door, Brother Sickly, and so on. Not everything is so idyllic as this monastic life though; the death of the old mayor has seen the deputy ascend to take his place, and the grudge he bears the Father Superior – and eventually Marcelino himself – drives him towards dishonourable goals.
For Marcelino, life is almost perfect, though the knowledge that something is lacking in his world slowly grows in his awareness. An orphan, questions about his unknown mother gradually come to the fore and, though he is loved by all the friars, their kindness cannot totally overcome her absence. One day he encounters a beautiful young mother and adopts the name of her son for an imaginary friend, and soon “Manuel” has become his constant companion in mischief; but his innocent games bring him into conflict with the new mayor, who takes this opportunity to threaten the monastery.
However, Marcelino has no concept of the cruelty of the world or the shadow falling over his home and the people he loves. He simply lives in the moment, tormenting the friars and breaking their rules for him, while quietly longing for the chance to know his mother – and it is while disobeying an instruction never to climb a particular staircase that Marcelino encounters a new friend, someone in terrible need and who welcomes Marcelino’s simple, instinctive acts of kindness, offering the greatest possible gift in return.
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Marcelino Pan y Vino (Marcelino Bread and Wine) went under the title The Miracle of Marcelino for English speaking audiences in 1955, and for an non-believing viewer such as myself it is, if you’ll pardon the choice of words, a bit of a revelation. It is predominantly a story set in a religious world as distinct from a religious story, and it is simply told and charming throughout, but the way it builds towards the undeniably fantastical climax struck me as quite unusual.
Structurally it is episodic, revealing moments from the life of Marcelino and, to a lesser extent, the adults around him; for the child these are more or less equally significant, or insignificant, being simple childhood experiences; for the friars though there is an increasing sense of threat and injustice that is made quite powerful by contrast to the lives of decency, love and kindness which they lead. This is all achieved with engaging and straightforward storytelling, and anyone who enjoys mid-20th Century European cinema (if you’ll forgive the huge generalisation there) should consider this a treat not to be missed.
However, the great challenge for the film comes in its final act when this naturalistic style is suddenly forced to represent the supernatural, and the theme shifts from a simple story of the mundane world to encompass the impossible. To say it succeeds is to be accurate. In a limited sense this change jars the story; the trials and tribulations of the monastery are effectively abandoned as even peripheral elements of the plot, and by the final moments of the film there can be no notion that the fantasy is only an aspect of a child’s potent imagination – this is now the story of a witnessed miracle, and as such any normal concerns about the material world logically become secondary.
I am not a believer in God, and I have no desire to become one. I am a believer in excellent cinema, and Marcelino Pan y Vino is an example of something quite special: a tale that can move the viewer regardless of the extent to which they accept the central fantasy as potentially real, or simply not.