If Only the Public Knew the Miracle of 'The Miracle'

By Gire, Dann | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), December 28, 1999 | Go to article overview

If Only the Public Knew the Miracle of 'The Miracle'


Gire, Dann, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Dann Gire Daily Herald Film Critic

If I had to pick the most significant motion picture of the century - at least for the United States - it would have to be a movie not even made by American studios.

Roberto Rossellini directed the Italian drama "The Miracle" in 1948, but it didn't reach America until December of 1950 when it played at a New York theater.

In the story - written by Italy's legendary filmmaker Federico Fellini - a peasant girl (played by Anna Magnani) becomes drunk. In her inebriated state, she mistakes a bearded vagrant (Fellini himself) who seduces her to be Saint Joseph, and imagines her resulting pregnancy to be a miracle.

Instantly, the Legion of Decency attacked the movie as "a sacrilegious and blasphemous mockery of Christian religious truth." The Catholic Church, notably Cardinal Spellman, condemned it as "a despicable affront to every Christian" and the Church launched demonstrations against the movie.

The New York Board of Regents buckled under the pressure and revoked a license previously given to Joseph Burstyn, a Polish film distributor responsible for bringing "The Miracle" to the Big Apple.

In effect, the film had been banned. Burstyn, a feisty entrepreneur, took the case to court. After the New York Supreme Court sided with the government, Burstyn appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1952, U.S. Justices handed down a decision that rocked the American cultural landscape.

For the first time, movies would be granted constitutional protection under the First Amendment. Before, films had been considered by the court to be merely businesses that could be regulated by the government.

Because of the efforts by Burstyn and his attorney Ephraim London, movies would be protected and free to explore all subjects and to experiment with bolder treatments.

A happy ending?

No. Not at all.

Never did any of the Hollywood studios, the entities that would benefit most from the "Miracle" decision, help Burstyn in his fight for First Amendment protection.

He received not a dime or any form of moral or political support from Hollywood. Burstyn spent two years and $75,000 of his own money to get constitutional protection for the movies.

Even after the historic "Miracle" decision, most cowering studio honchos refused to comment on the case to reporters.

Then, a year after the landmark case, Burstyn took an airplane trip to Europe and suffered a heart attack en route. By the time the plane landed, he had died.

To this day, the Supreme Court case "Burstyn Vs. Wilson" remains one of the greatest untold stories of the American cinema, and Italy's "The Miracle" the most significant movie in American history.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the remainder of 10 of the most significant motion pictures of the past century:

"The Blair Witch Project" (1999) - The $30,000 horror picture that dragged Hollywood kicking and screaming into the Internet Age and single-handedly changed the business of movie marketing for the next millennium.

"Deep Throat" (1972) - Linda Lovelace's comic romp about a frustrated woman with her sex organ in her throat not only became a box office smash, it attracted couples and mainstreamed the once-ghettoized genre of hard-core porn, paving the way for public acceptance of those adults-only back rooms we see in neighborhood video stores today. …

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