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The Third Man

Harris Nearly Saves Miracle From Its Melodramatic Self


On a Mission From God: Ed Harris plays a priest who investigates would-be saints in The Third Miracle.

By Luisa F. Ribeiro | Posted

Questions of faith fascinate Agnieska Holland. Over the past decade, the Polish director's films have returned repeatedly to challenges of belief, either in self (Europa, Europa; Washington Square) or in something more indistinct and/or mystical (Olivier, Olivier; The Secret Garden). Her latest film, The Third Miracle, takes what has become a film standard—a Catholic priest's inner crisis—and spins in an intriguing mystery, not to mention an almost X-Files-esque fixation with sainthood and miracles. The film is fueled by the weather-beaten, shamelessly sensual magnetism of Ed Harris as doubting priest Frank Shore, but the story's dips into earthly temptations only distract from Holland's real focus: the crucial and fragile nature of hope.

A fascinating, grainy, documentary-style opening set in Europe during World War II—the details of which will have vital repercussions throughout the story—gives way to the harsh working-class neighborhoods of late-1970s Chicago. Father Frank, clad in street clothes, works at a soup kitchen while both struggling with and avoiding his uncertainties about continuing in the priesthood.

Frank has served as a church "postulator," or detective, investigating the life of a small-town priest nominated for sainthood. The job earned him the nickname "miracle killer"; his investigation has uncovered the would-be saint's less-than-pure past, which shatters the expectations of an entire community—and leaves Frank torn over whether belief in a lie is better than no belief at all.

To Frank's dismay, he's summoned from the soup kitchen by his disarmingly and gleefully political bishop to resume his duties as postulator, this time examining the life of Helen O'Regan (Barbara Sukowa), whose death has coincided with tears of blood flowing from the eyes of a statue of the Virgin Mary at the church in which she lived and worked. The tears have been reported to have healing powers, which may or may not constitute one of the miracles necessary in the demanding requirements for canonization. (A candidate for sainthood must have produced three miracles, verified as such by the Catholic Church, hence the film's title.)

Frank's cynicism and barely concealed fury are matched by Roxane (an impish Anne Heche), Helen's daughter, who is openly skeptical that her mother, who abandoned her as a child, could possess any saintlike qualities. Attracted by Roxane's bitterness—and her pixie-ish smile—Frank gradually overcomes his reluctance, allowing himself to be drawn into not only Roxane's life but the mystery of her mother's and the question of whether miracles are truly possible.

Based on the novel by Richard Vetere, who co-wrote the script with John Romano, The Third Miracle hops back and forth between the familiar (a priest confronting his doubts) and the unusual (the Roman Catholic Church's rigid and formalized structure for investigating miracles). The candid portrayal of the church as a pragmatic, even hard-ass institution ready and willing to do what is necessary to function within a modern, secular society plays well, but holds few real surprises.

The same can be said for Frank's angst, the detective-story aspects, the will-they-or-won't-they taboo love affair, the unrelenting dismal reality of poverty and street life, and the courtroom-style climax (with Armin Mueller-Stahl positively brimming with tight-lipped disapproval as the "devil's advocate," Archbishop Werner). All these elements somehow lack that larger-than-life quality usually associated with film; rather, The Third Miracle plays like an exceptional TV movie. (Vetere and Romano have worked extensively in television, and Holland is not unfamiliar with the medium, having directed an episode for the noir series Fallen Angels). This isn't a failing, necessarily, but it does explain the melodramatic plot devices so casually tossed in along with serious questions of faith and the inexplicable.

Harris makes a lot of these shortcomings forgivable. The actor has worked with Holland before (in, ironically, To Kill a Priest, her first English-language film), and she declares in The Third Miracle's press notes that she would not have made the film if Harris had not played Frank. Her instincts were correct. Harris dominates the film, seething with equal parts despair and hope even as he radiates his distinct physical charm. And it's a delight to watch the very real sparks fly between Frank and Roxane, even if their tentative relationship is the most conventional aspect of the story.

That the relationship is there at all, however, makes one wonder whether serious explorations of religion and spirituality can make it to the big screen unless they're bucked up by the promise of a little torrid melodrama. That's hardly a new concept in Hollywood's long line of God movies, but somehow, because Holland's film comes so near to being truly provocative, that realization is all the more disappointing and sad.

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