The first Omar Sharif film I remember watching was Mackenna’s Gold. As the bandit John Colorado, Sharif made a very young me (I was a child) feel that, my goodness, how could someone be so cruel and nasty and not at all nice? Then, a couple of years later, I saw The Night of the Generals and refused to believe that the upright Major Grau could be played by the same man who played the evil Colorado.
In the many years since my teens, I have seen many more of Omar Sharif’s films. I’ve seen him play everyone from a Mongol warrior (Genghis Khan) to a Russian doctor (Dr Zhivago), an Armenian king (The Fall of the Roman Empire), a German officer (The Night of the Generals), an Arab tribal leader (Lawrence of Arabia)… and a Spanish prince.
When I heard that Omar Sharif had passed away yesterday, at the age of 83, I felt awful. Omar Sharif has long been a huge favourite of mine. I’ve been disappointed in a film because it had too little of him; he has brought to life a film for me simply by having a big, meaty role in it. He was, in a Hollywood where the foreign acting talent then consisted largely of Europeans, one of the very few (the only?) African or Asian actors who made it big. He was handsome, talented, breathtakingly attractive (not to mention a champion bridge player).
In tribute, therefore, a little-known but sweet little fairy tale of a film starring Mr Sharif. More Than a Miracle is set in Naples, where the Spanish are in control.
The story begins with the Spanish Prince Rodrigo (Omar Sharif) busy taming a very wild horse, in the grounds of his palace. Rodrigo’s mother (Dolores Del Rio) emerges from the palace to admonish him. He’d be better off spending his time looking for a wife rather than taming horses. There are seven beautiful Italian princesses just waiting for him to choose between them, and the King of Spain has already ordered that Rodrigo should marry.
But Rodrigo won’t be pressured so easily. He’s a defiant, devil-may-care sort, and nobody—neither mother, nor king—is going to bully him into doing anything he doesn’t want to. So, after a swift dismissal of his mother’s somewhat irritable (and irritating) pleading, Rodrigo mounts up and goes off at a gallop.
The horse, of course, isn’t tamed yet, and after a while throws Rodrigo into the bushes. The saddle falls off, and the horse races off into the blue.
Rodrigo picks himself and the saddle up, and goes off to look for the horse. His wanderings through the countryside soon bring him to a small monastery above which floats Brother Joseph, the flying monk. (Yes, well. I’d warned you: this is a fairy tale. All sorts of things happen in fairy tales).
Brother Joseph alights, greets Rodrigo (who is, unsurprisingly, somewhat bemused at this holy man’s powers of levitation), and proceeds to ask what he’s looking for. Rodrigo’s assertion—that he’s looking for his horse—makes Joseph smile. What you are looking for may not be what you will find, he says cryptically. And what does he think Rodrigo will find? A wife.
Again, that wife motif. Rodrigo is getting sick of this all, but tries to humour the old man. Joseph gives him a small sack of flour. If you meet a woman, get her to make you seven dumplings from this. If you can eat all of them, then I will be proved wrong, says Joseph. Rodrigo, to keep him happy, takes the flour. It can do no harm.
He sets off again (this time awkwardly mounted on Seraphim, a rather stocky little donkey that Joseph lends to him), in search of his horse. He finally finds it—tethered in a field of vegetables. A poor village maiden, Isabella (Sophia Loren) is busy digging up root vegetables and piling them into cloth panniers slung over this beautiful horse’s back.
Rodrigo goes storming in, accusing the woman of being a horse thief. He pulls off the panniers, throws out her vegetables, swears to have her arrested—and is taken aback when she gives back as good as she gets. Isabella accuses him of being a horse thief himself: whoever saw a man so scruffy and dusty, his clothes half-torn, owning a horse like this? And when Rodrigo shows the fine Arab saddle he’s lugging around, she accuses him of having stolen that too.
There’s an unseemly brawl, but Rodrigo—being larger and stronger—throws Isabella to the ground and rides away on his horse. Isabella gets up, brushes herself off, and sets about picking up her vegetables all over again before heading back home…
…and, shortly after she gets to her bare little cottage, finds a visitor knocking on her ramshackle door. It is—who would guess it?—Rodrigo. He’s apparently not as inimical to Isabella as would have appeared at first sight. In fact, far from it: he finds her, dirt and all, very intriguing. So he’s come to her with a request: will she please take this bag of flour and make him seven dumplings?
Isabella is baffled, but snaps at him: Anything to get rid of you.
When she finally hands him a plateful of dumplings, though, Rodrigo finds that there are six, not seven. His persistent questioning—where is the seventh dumpling?—annoys Isabella, and another argument erupts. Isabella gets furious and hits out at Rodrigo, and when he falls and plays dead, she’s so angry, she snaps, “Two can play that game!”—and goes rushing out into the village yelling to the rest of the villagers that she’s killed a Spaniard.
Chaos follows. Everybody gathers around, there’s much pushing and shoving and people saying that the Spanish will decimate the village when they come to know. The ‘dead’ Rodrigo, covered up with a cloth, is quickly ‘buried’ inside a hastily-dug grave, and covered with a couple of branches. Someone snatches the heavy ring off Rodrigo’s finger, too, but Isabella manages to take possession of it…
…and, later that night, when all is quiet, goes to check on Rodrigo. He’s disappeared, of course, but as she walks through the rain, Isabella bumps into an old woman (Carlo Pisacane) who seems to realize that Isabella has fallen in love with the handsome Spaniard the village had ‘buried’ earlier. And she can help Isabella. Isabella agrees, and the old woman—who’s a witch—takes Isabella off into the woods, where a group of witches are having a feast.
They’re all dirty, slatternly old women, but they offer lots of advice for Isabella to get her man back. It’s all mostly garbled, except for one bit—put your tongue in the keyhole of a lock—which, according to another witch, isn’t a good idea, because it’ll paralyze the man.
There’s a bit of chaos when a fight breaks out, and Isabella ends up being left all by herself. She’s desperate now to somehow get Rodrigo back, and all she can remember is that stuff about putting her tongue in the keyhole of a lock. The lock’s sitting right there, among the scattered dishes and wasted food… so Isabella goes ahead and does it.
And, somewhere in the countryside, Rodrigo (who’s taken shelter at a convent and is being fed a meal by a bunch of benevolent old nuns), suddenly goes rigid, his fingers still curled around a leg of poultry.
How far can a romance (and that too one between an Italian peasant woman and a Spanish prince) get, when the man has been paralyzed? How will Isabella get to Rodrigo? Will they ever have their happily-ever-after?
I’ll supply the answer only to the last of those questions: yes. Because, from the moment this film begins, you know: this is a fairytale. And, as everybody knows, it’s the rare fairy tale that doesn’t end happily.
What I liked about this film:
I was intrigued from the first moment I read the synopsis of More Than a Miracle on IMDB. When I saw this film, I fell in love with it. There’s just so much about it that’s charming and sweet and—well, completely fairy tale-like. Something like Cinderella meets East of the Sun and West of the Moon. There’s magic here, all the way from the kindly flying monk Brother Joseph to the witches (who, even if they use black magic, at least do it with good intentions). There is the comfort of knowing that it’ll turn out well between the handsome prince and his beautiful love, even if their love story sees a lot of friction and arguments.
There’s the beauty of the buildings, from the grandly gorgeous palace of Rodrigo to the stark austerity of the monastery. There’s Sophia Loren, scruffy but gorgeous. There’s humour, there’s lightness. There are thousands of fluffy yellow chicks.
Then, there’s Omar Sharif. So very handsome. So attractive, even when he’s being not exactly the picture of chivalry. And when he confesses his love, there’s the softening of his eyes, the slow dawning of a wonderful, wonderful smile.
Goodnight, sweet prince. You will be sorely missed.