The Third Miracle
The Third Miracle USA, 1999.  Rated R.  119 minutes.

Cast: Ed Harris, Anne Heche, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Michael Rispoli, Caterina Scorsone, Barbara Sukowa, Charles Haid, James Gallander, Jean-Louis Roux, Ken James
Writers: John Romano and Richard Vetere from the novel by Richard Vetere
Music: Jan A.P. Kaczmarek

Cinematographer: Jerzy Zielinski

Producers: Fred Fuchs, Steven Haft

Director: Agnieszka Holland

Grade: C Review by Jeff Vorndam

This year has brought forth a bumper crop of Catholic-themed movies. First was the inane Stigmata, a ludicrously sensational thriller whose religious aspects were played for shock value. A month later, Kevin Smith's bawdy opus Dogma splashed across the screens, provoking equal parts thought and embarrassment. Then we were blessed with Neil Jordan's sublime The End of the Affair, a handsome and reflective treatment of Grahame Greene's classic novel about our moral obligations to God. The trinity wouldn't be complete without a fourth member (it also wouldn't be trinity, but work with me here), and arriving in theaters is Agnieszka Holland's mystery/drama The Third Miracle. The question at this point is: should you care? The Third Miracle is a movie about a priest's crisis of faith, his temptations of the flesh, and the nature and need of miracles themselves. The first is standard movie stuff - priests in movies are either soul-searching doubters or intolerant Bible-thumpers. The second is unconvincing and unnecessary - the romance subplot adds nothing to film other than to make us squirm at its awkwardness. The third aspect of the film is intriguing however, and had it been better developed and presented, The Third Miracle could be seen as a success despite its other flaws. It's overshadowed by those flaws though, and bogged down in the last act by what is essentially a courtroom climax, as tired a movie device as they come. Ed Harris and Anne Heche

I think Catholicism fascinates filmmakers because it recognizes and codifies the supernatural. The mundane and ordinary acts of worship are embellished with (in the eyes of storytellers) tales of miracles and exorcisms, saints and demons, forgiveness and wrath. According to Catholic doctrine, in order to be canonized (made a saint), the worthy candidate must have not only led an exemplary life of service to God, but also have been demonstrably responsible for two miracles. According to the Church, a miracle can only occur after the person has died --their intercession in response to prayer is what constitutes the miracle. The movie, which intends to be a serious examination of the nature of miracles makes a serious error by attributing one of the miracles in this film to a person while she is still living. (For more on how to become a saint, click here! ) Another gaffe is that the film takes place in 1979, four years before Pope John Paul II lowered the requirement for miracles from three to two (don't get your hopes up, kiddos).

In a rare leading role, Ed Harris plays Father Frank Shore, the sexiest priest in Chicago. He is introduced to us as a disillusioned flunkey, abandoning his practice to live amongst the poor. Father Shore once specialized in investigating (and debunking) miracles for the Church. He became disgruntled when his efforts to expose a reputed miracle as a fraud resulted in an entire community's loss of faith. On the one hand, the Church has to check the veracity of the legion of claims of miracles it receives. On the other hand, as Father Shore reckons, if the belief in a miracle enables faith in the people, isn't its value apparent? The contingency upon miracles for faith causes Shore to doubt his own beliefs, as he has never met a miracle he couldn't unshroud. This particular case involves an immigrant woman named Helen (Barbara Sukowa), who is alleged to have cured a young girl (Caterina Scorsone) of lupus when the girl prayed to her. Because this is a movie, Agnieszka Holland can't resist adding a statue that cries tears of blood when it rains, though this is not treated as a separate miracle in the film, but as more of a freaky side effect--further proof that something extraordinary is happening. Armin Mueller-Stahl

Father Shore, in the course of his investigation, must find people who will attest to Helen's goodness while on Earth, like character witnesses at a trial. An important person who will be needed to vouch for Helen is her daughter Roxanne (Anne Heche). Perhaps it's because everyone else in the movie is so dull and serious, but Heche's Roxanne leaps off the screen with feisty spunk. She wears bizarre headdresses. She talks in excited halting sentences. She's not above seducing a priest and (literally) dancing on her mother's grave with him and a bottle of vodka (one of the silliest scenes I've witnessed all year). She's also a non-believer. Ironically, it is her disbelief and the sexual attraction Father Shore feels toward her that reawaken his spiritual side. Roxanne is bitter about Helen abandoning her at age 16 to devote herself to God. Shore has come around to defending Helen, and needs Roxanne to consider whether Helen found the decision to leave her tortuous, so the Church's saint review board doesn't disallow her for neglecting her child. Here the movie surprised me by doing the right thing. Roxanne and Frank's budding romance is nipped by this difference of opinion. She can't believe her mother could be a saint after leaving her, and he needs Helen to be a saint to restore his faith.

It all comes down to a showdown in the inner sanctum of Church politics. Father Shore presents the case for beatification. Opposing him is a bigwig flown in from the Country of Scary Accents, Cardinal Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl, in fine loathsome form). By removing the story to the realm of polemic and pontification, the film loses the thread it had tying miracles to faith. There are shocks and surprises during the proceedings: a couple of unexpected visitors, last-minute pleas, and personal revelations, all of which are clearly foreseeable or tried-and-true movie clichés. The coda attempts to instill a sense of wonder as we leave the film, but you may be wondering by this point just how many miracles does the film believe it presents - 2? 3? 4? If it were more clear that the movie is going beyond the limiting Catholic definition of a miracle, and pointing us toward miracles that occur in our everyday lives, then the ending would fit. It doesn't appear that the Church's view has been discarded though, and the last episode/miracle feels tacked on, almost like a joke on its bearer.

The Third Miracle did not involve me as entertainment, or explore its themes as well as it could have, but there is interesting material for those who are dedicated to finding it. Ed Harris, whose last bad performance was during the Carter administration, is convincing and charismatic. The photography is appropriately matched to the story. Ranging from grainy realism [tangent: why is grainy associated with realism? We live in a real world, but I don't look outside and see grainy particles floating around] to overexposed hyperreality, it captures the mood and environment appropriately. If, by some miracle, this film appears at a multiplex near you, consider it as an alternative once you've seen all the other films canonized by my fellow AboutFilm critics.

Review © February 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.