TORONTO REVIEW: Holland's "Miracle" Comes Through with Compelling Drama
by Stephen Garrett
Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland ("Washington Square," "Europa, Europa") delivers initially slow, but eventually compelling drama with "The Third Miracle," a refreshingly original and intelligent take on religious faith. Ed Harris' tough gem of a performance highlights a satisfying cast of actors all breathing life into the well-written script, by John Romano and Richard Vetere, based on Vetere's novel about a priest who doubts his faith while submitting a 10 years-deceased Chicago woman for sainthood. Sony Picture Classics, which produced the film, may have to push for box office attendance to the decidedly un-glamorous year-end release, but audiences who do go will not be disappointed.
Troubled priest Frank Shore (Harris), a top-notch church postulator based in Chicago who investigates reported miracles and generally debunks the religious hysteria that arises around them, finds that professional skepticism is eroding his own belief in God, especially after one case in which his handiwork wiped clean the faith of an entire community. Taking time off from the church, Shore is called back into duty when the members of a local parish start recognizing the late Helen O'Regan as a healer and miracle worker who continues to answer prayers from beyond the grave. Adding fuel to the speculation is a statue of the Virgin Mary which has also been known to cry tears of blood in her name.
During his investigation, Shore meets O'Regan's estranged daughter Roxane (Anne Heche) and the two find themselves strongly attracted to each other, further complicating his crisis of faith with carnal temptations that threaten to break his vows of celibacy. As a lead in Shore's investigation, Roxane has little to say, since she still carries a bitter resentment towards her mother, who abandoned her at 16 for a life of devotion to God. Among Shore's allies, though, is teenager Maria Witkowski (Caterina Scorsone), whom Helen supposedly saved from a terminal illness; and the fact that the statue's bloody tears are actually scientifically proven to be real blood -- the same type as Helen O'Regan's.
Shore pushes the amorous Roxane away, concentrates on his work and, for the first time in his life, actually recommends someone for sainthood -- a step that leads to a Roman Tribunal sent directly from the Vatican to decide officially whether or not Helen should be so elevated. No easy task: included in the group of heavy-hitting holy men is Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a shrewd, wildly unpredictable person whose forte is playing devil's advocate by jibing Shore each step of the way, questioning and mocking every single remark.
Mueller-Stahl's presence gives the film an enormous dramatic boost, with lines that challenge Shore and create increasingly provocative discussions about faith and the function of faith, not to mention the inner, age-old machinations of Vatican laws and procedure. In these theological debates "The Third Miracle" takes flight, delivering the kind of electric, stimulating and earnest conversations rare in movies today; and having the acting caliber of Harris and Mueller-Stahl as vessels to deliver these debates makes for sparkling cinema.
Where the film shows its weakness is in the underused Roxanne, whose character's complex involvement with Shore and his case offers a route for enriching the drama far more than Holland and the screenwriters allow. But there are more then enough strengths to outweigh the weaknesses, making it easy to dismiss the film's few shortcomings and concentrate on Holland's impeccably directed character studies and religious ruminations.