The Third Miracle

          Dramatizing something internal, like a crisis of faith, is a nearly impossible task. Kevin
  Smith tried to play the situation for laughs in his uneven but very reverential comedy
  Director Agnieska Holland and screenwriters John Romano and Richard Vetere (working from
  Vetere's novel) take a dramatic approach to the topic with
THE THIRD MIRACLE. Clearly a lot
  of care and intelligence have gone into the effort and despite the fine work of actors Ed Harris,
  Anne Heche and Armin Mueller-Stahl the film unfortunately doesn't coalesce.

          Audiences may be disoriented by the opening sequence, shot in grainy color to approximate
  aged newsreel footage. A small town in central Europe is being bombed during World War II
  and  a young girl carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary kneels in the town square praying. The roar
  of the airplanes and the whizzing bombs give way to a preternatural quiet as if the child's prayers
  were answered.

          The film jumps thirty-five years to Chicago where Father Frank Shore (Harris) is living in a
  flophouse and taking his meals at a soup kitchen. Father Shore was a professional postulator,
  a priest who investigates reported miracles, who has retreated to this world after uncovering a
  hoax in a town that destroyed the faith of its residents and called into question his own beliefs.
  Now his services are being called for by a slick, politically savvy bishop (Charles Haid). Father
  Shore is asked to investigate the case for sainthood of the one Helen O'Regan (Barbara
  Sukowa, seen in home movies), who reportedly cured a young girl who prayed to her memory.

          Not wanting to make the same mistakes as he has in the past, Father Shore moves forward
  cautiously, tracking down the cured girl, now a runaway and prostitute. Complicating matters for
  him is the presence of Helen's daughter Roxane (Heche), who claims that her mother abandoned
  her in favor of the church. As Father Shore and Roxane draw closer -- she presents a palpable
  temptation to this man whose own faith is wavering -- he is also working to champion Helen's
  cause for sainthood. Enter the Vatican Emissary Archbishop Werner (Mueller-Stahl), who is
  to play the role of Devil's Advocate in challenging the cause of sainthood. Werner and Shore
  clash and in those scenes the film really comes alive.

          Harris is saddled with the most difficult part and he does what he can to manifest what is
  essentially an internalized conflict. (If this were a Shakespearean drama, he would have several
  soliloquies that would clue the audience in to his feelings and beliefs.) Heche brings a distinctive
  energy and eccentricity to the role of the dead woman's agnostic daughter and she and Harris
  share a palpable chemistry. But as the focus of the movie shifts to the tribunal hearings, she
  becomes more window dressing than integral character. Mueller-Stahl clearly relishes his
  character and his scenes with Harris crackle, particularly in several pivotal confrontations.
  (Director Holland has made reference to off-screen competition between the actors who have
  decidedly different approaches to acting and that clearly plays out in the work.)

          Holland deliberately styled the film to look as if it were made in the period in which it is set
  and there are echoes of the work of Lumet and Friedkin in Jerzy Zielinski's cinematography and
  David J. Siegel's editing but the story is too slight to warrant such care. Undoubtedly there will be
  some in the institution of the Catholic Church who will object to the film but that's to be expected.
  Holland and company have tried to offer a compelling tale that is reverential but not overly so.
  Yet these good intentions cannot overcome the failings in the script which for long stretches drag.
THE THIRD MIRACLE is filled with good intentions and contains some fine acting; it's a pity it
  is not more wondrous.

                                  Rating:                    C
                                  MPAA Rating:        R for some language, sex-related and violent images,
                                                                       and brief drug use
                                  Running time:         119 mins.
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.