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Father Frank Shore became a priest after promising God that he would do so if his policeman father survived a near fatal shooting.  But he seems to have always been at least somewhat skeptical about the whole deal.  When we are introduced to him in the film he has gone well beyond simple skepticism and is living in an inner city Chicago flophouse, openly doubting his calling.  But the local bishop has need of his services, however reluctant, because Frank serves as a postulator, investigating alleged miracles and potential saints, and at the moment strong claims are being put forward for the beatification of an immigrant woman named Helen O'Regan.

O'Regan has been dead for several years but on the day of her memorial service a young girl who she had befriended entered the church covered in blood which had dripped from the eyes of a statue as she prayed to or for Helen.  The event would be remarkable enough in its own right, but even more startling is the fact that it cured the child of lupus.  Since that time parishioners have come to believe that the statue, which performs similarly during rainstorms every November (the month of Helen's death), has healing powers and that Helen was a saint.

Frank has earned a reputation as a debunker of such claims, and with it the nickname "The Miracle Killer", but his most recent effort precipitated his downward spiral.  In that case Frank himself felt intimations of the divine and even witnessed a miraculous cure, but he ultimately disproved the virtue of the cleric involved.  His crisis of conscience resulted from the knowledge that he had destroyed peoples faith in something tangible, even if extrareligious, in the service of a Church and a God that he is not certain he truly believes in.  Now he wants "God to show his face", in order that he may believe that it has all been worthwhile.  And so he heads off to St. Stanislaus with a doubting mind but an open heart.  Everything that he finds there gives him reason to believe in Helen O'Reagan.

This portion of the movie is very much a classic detective story, a kind of Catholic hard-boiled noir, with Frank as the gumshoe.  The main complication that Frank faces in this phase of the case is an attraction to the daughter Helen pretty much abandoned when she entered the church.  That daughter, Roxanne (Ann Heche), sixteen at the time but now grown, is naturally resentful and baffled by the notion that her mother might become just the fourth American saint.  Given the conventions of Hollywood this love interest is probably inevitable and it is handled as well as could possibly be expected, but it would be a better film without it.

In the second half of the movie, which becomes a courtroom melodrama, Frank has to defend the case for Helen's sainthood against an extremely hostile and Ameriphobic devil's advocate, an Archbishop (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl) who is visiting from Rome.  Frank's own wavering faith becomes an issue in the hearing, but so too does the Archbishop's personal unwillingness to grant the possibility that an uncultured American immigrant woman could be a vessel of God.

Director Agnieskia Holland is not quite at top form here, at least not at the peak level she reached in Europa, Europa and The Secret Garden, but she never stoops to condescend to this material, which is pretty unusual in the modern cinema.  There are some characterizations that are a tad too hackneyed and some of the shots at the Catholic Church are too easy, too cheap, to be taken seriously; but even the villains, all clerics, of the piece ultimately prove to have more complex motivations than we first believe.  Meanwhile, there are some really fine set pieces, particularly the discussions between Frank and his colleagues, where faith is taken seriously and discussed with passion, insight, and altogether appropriate awe.

Now, for each of these essays I try to find all the links I can to other reviews that are available online.  In doing so for this movie I was first amused then angered by the frequency with which the following sentiment cropped up : this is yet another film about a priest wrestling with his faith.  Yet another?  Hold back the deluge!

This is not to say that the central dilemma here is unique; it is not.  It treads some of the ground covered by The Exorcist, which despite its reputation as a mere horror film is a compelling depiction of a priest's struggle to believe, but it does so without all the special effects, profanity, and other shockers and its particular concerns are very different.  I guess it is also somewhat similar to Stigmata which was unfortunately released at roughly the same time.  But so what?  If Silence of the Lambs didn't exhaust the topic of serial killers and Porky's didn't obviate the need for inane scatological teen comedies, a bare handful of films sure as Hell didn't dispose of the questions surrounding belief in God.  The winner of the Academy Award in 2000, which I think is when Third Miracle would have been eligible, was American Beauty.  Did we really need yet another look at the desperation of the suburbs and the dysfunctioning family?  The answer is : if the film is good, by all means, another look is fine. But the same goes for The Third Miracle and the subjects it deals with.

I don't know; maybe the questions raised in the Third Miracle just resonate with me because I've reached a certain age and temperament, but I find the problem of faith to be quite fascinating.  How, in an Age of Reason and of Skepticism, can we believe in a God who no longer chooses to reveal himself to us through prophets, messiahs, and miracles?  Personally, I find the intellectual case for God to be compelling, but a miracle would sure close the deal.  At any rate, if your mind is so closed that you can not allow for the possibility of God or the miraculous, or if you think the serious exploration of religious faith has become as ubiquitous as the car chase in recent movies, by all means, skip this one.  But if you appreciate great acting (Ed Harris is especially good) and beautiful film making, and you're still curious about why we do or don't choose to believe in God, then you owe it to yourself to watch The Third Miracle.

(Reviewed:11-Nov-01)

Grade: (B+)

Websites:

See also:

    -INFO : The Third Miracle (1999) (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Agnieszka Holland (Imdb.com)
    -Biography : Agnieszka Holland (Sergiusz Swiderski / ÝPerfectNet)
    -INTERVIEW : The Miracle Worker: An Interview with Agnieszka Holland on The Third Miracle (Dan Lybarger, March 2000,  Pitch Weekly
    -PROFILE : Ms. Holland's Opuses (M.V. Moorhead, 02/17/2000, Phoenix New Times)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Ed Harris (1950-) (Imdb.com)
    -PROFILE : Harris' own Miracle (BRUCE KIRKLAND, March 2, 2000, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (STEPHEN HOLDEN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Terry Teachout, The Crisis)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (PETER T. CHATTAWAY, Christian Week)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian
Catholic Film Office)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (James Berardinelli Reel Views)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Peter Stack, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Wesley Morris, SF EXAMINER)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (KEVIN THOMAS, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (BRUCE KIRKLAND, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (PHILIPPA HAWKER, The Age)
    -REVIEW : of The Third MiracleÝ(PAULA NECHAK, THE SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (F.X. Feeney , LA Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Peter Keough, Worcester Phoenix)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Richard von Busack, MetroActive)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Ernest Hardy, Film.com)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Tom Block, Culture Vulture)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Renee Scolaro Rathke, Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (David Bruce, Hollywood Jesus)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Rob Blackwelder, Spliced)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Linda J. Dimon, Ace)
    -REVIEW : of The Third Miracle (Curtis Tsui, DVDAngle)
    -REVIEWS :  of The Third Miracle (Rotten Tomates)

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