Sometimes a Saint must rely upon a man without faith.
The Third Miracle explores the intersection of the spiritual and the temporal as it patiently reveals the enigma of a modest Chicago housewife, Helen O'Regan and asks difficult questions. Was this unassuming woman truly a Saint, a woman of exceptional virtue and responsible for evident miracles? What does it mean to be a Saint in this day and age? If Helen O'Regan was a chosen soul of God, then why was a priest with deeply troubled faith chosen to carry forward her cause?
Considering the cynical, politically correct, moral cesspool that is the modern Hollywood, that The Third Miracle ever saw the light of day qualifies as a cinematic miracle. Not only does it delve into the inner workings of the Roman Catholic Church and ponder matters of faith and religion, but The Third Miracle does so with intelligence and respect. It is far too easy to use religious authority as a convenient villain, throw cheap-shot darts at inconvenient religious doctrines, use religion as mere window-dressing, or simply treat matters of faith and those who profess it with ridicule or merely disrespect. Thankfully, The Third Miracle steers well clear of those shallow waters.
The Roman Catholic Church, in the two millennia of its existence, has developed a slow, painstaking procedure, steeped in tradition and canon law, to judge whether a member was in fact a Saint, a person with a special relationship with God that should be recognized by the Church. Not only must they be a person of exemplary faith and impeccable virtue, but they must be universally acknowledged to bear responsibility for three unequivocal miracles. (However, director Agnieszka Holland [Europa Europa, The Secret Garden] mentions in the commentary that Pope John Paul II has relaxed the rules so that now only one miracle is required.) Once a request is submitted, whether by a religious or a layperson, the Church uses a religious "detective" (called a postulant) to investigate.
With a mixture of science and faith, the postulant determines whether the person did indeed live an exemplary life and whether the miracles are in fact miraculous—namely, can they be explained by any other means? Once a prospective Saint has passed this initial screening, the Church employs a quasi-judicial proceeding where the postulant advocates on behalf of the "cause" of this prospective Saint and his opponent (nicknamed "the Devil's Advocate") argues against the "cause" (to ensure that the unsuitable or the unworthy are not given undeserved recognition). A Saint cannot be so recognized until the tribunal, made up of archbishops and cardinals, is convinced.
This is the framework for The Third Miracle. Father Frank Shore (Ed Harris) has withdrawn from the world, spending his time at a soup kitchen as he ponders his last assignment. Acting as a postulator, his investigation of Father Falcone, a prospective Saint in one local community, unearthed harsh and unwelcome truths, destroying the prospective Saint's reputation and damaging the faith of the community as well as his own. Feeling that he has lost his faith, Father Shore is reluctantly called back to service when an old friend from the seminary, Father John Leone (Michael Rispoli), brings word that Shore's superior, Bishop Cahill (Charles Haid) urgently requires his attendance. A local Chicago parish believes that a deceased member, Helen O'Regan, is responsible for a statue that cries tears of real blood and is credited with a number of miracles. Bishop Cahill wants a prompt investigation, presumably debunking the claims, before matters get too far out of hand.
Father Shore gets right to work and soon encounters a bit of a contradiction. Despite a life of service to the poor and needy, it is indisputable that Helen O'Regan abandoned her daughter at the age of 16 to follow her calling to the Church. Exploring further, Frank meets Helen's now adult daughter, Roxane (Anne Heche), a non-religious woman who is still bitter and confused by her mother's choices. She is mystified by the furor over her mother and all the talk of sainthood, but grudgingly answers Fr. Shore's inquiries. Shore also begins to look into one miracle attributed to Helen O'Regan's intercession, namely the case of Maria Witkowski, who as a young girl was cured of terminal lupus. Saved by apparent divine power, Maria has squandered her gift, deteriorating into a drug addict and prostitute.
Recognizing the enormous task before him, Father Shore calls upon the assistance of Brother Gregory (James Gallanders), a monk who had unwittingly assisted him in revealing the truth of his parish priest, Father Falcone. A second encounter with Roxane (and a visit to Helen's graveside) reveals a strong, fast growing rapport between the pair, with romantic rumblings ahead. With Gregory's hope, Father Shore begins to sift through the O'Regan file for further clues to investigate, but it is when he personally observes the statue bleeding Helen O'Regan's blood that he has an epiphany of faith. His personal faith begins to stir, as Father Shore finds the inner strength to push aside the alcohol he had been using to dull his pain and eagerly embrace the cause of Helen O'Regan.
Father Shore, finally convinced, pushes the cause of Helen O'Regan with the Church, which in due course dispatches from Rome a "blue-ribbon" tribunal of prelates to hear the petition. Arguing against the cause is Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), "the Devil's Advocate." The quasi-judicial tribunal is slow and meticulous, listening to each side present its arguments of fact, canon law, and tradition with gravity and due deliberation. Father Shore and Brother Gregory are confident in the righteousness of their cause, but know that they need more evidence of at least a second miracle to keep Helen O'Regan's cause alive.
Racing against time, our intrepid religious duo search for that vital evidence, only to find one new miracle in their midst and the proof of another miracle in the reluctant testimony of a most unexpected and ironic source. The resolution is not quite as neat or tidy as you might expect, but the cause of Helen O'Regan remains alive and well, as well as the regenerating faith of Father Shore.
Ed Harris (The Right Stuff, The Abyss, Absolute Power) rises above his usual amiable, strong male character to embrace the role of Father Frank Shore, as a sensitive, spiritual, and flawed human being. I was also happy to see Charles Haid (famous as the lovable slob Andrew Renko on "Hill Street Blues") pop up as the jovial, well-connected bishop who prods Fr. Shore into the investigation. Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine, X-Files: Fight the Future, Jakob the Liar) is precisely cast as an Old World, powerful church prelate who hides a world of pain and suffering behind his formidable exterior. As for Anne Heche (Volcano, Wag the Dog, the 1998 version of Psycho), well, perhaps The Third Miracle was not a good choice on her part. Her bright orange-red hair and eclectic attire are more noticeable than her convincing acting. While the script does not help explain her strong feelings for Father Shore, neither does her performance.
The anamorphic video transfer is decent, considering The Third Miracle was a lower-budget, small audience sort of film. The worst parts of the video, during the World War II flashback sequences, are by design. These scenes were filmed on 16mm film and then blown up, giving the picture a horribly grainy appearance. The director and cinematographer intended this effect to emphasize the distinct time and place of those scenes, as opposed to the modern-day shots of the rest of the film. Otherwise, the film has a fair sampling of dirt and defects, but without any evident digital enhancement artifacts. Some colors are brightly saturated and others are muted, again apparently intentional decisions meant to emphasize temporal aspects of a scene, or to highlight certain situations or characters. I appreciate the director's appropriate tweaking of the picture for her own ends, and give the video good marks overall.
The audio does what it needs to do, namely give us clear dialogue and a warm, softly dramatic score. A mixture of religious, classical, and jazz, the score strongly supports the emotional and spiritual drama of The Third Miracle, thanks to the musical talents of Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Nothing to blow you away, but it gets the job done, and I wouldn't ask for more.
Extras are limited, but well done. There are the usual theatrical trailer, a limited set of talent files (for director Agnieszka Holland, Ed Harris, Anne Heche, and Armin Mueller-Stahl), a superb isolated score, and a director's commentary. The latter is quite refreshing, for Agnieszka Holland is that most rare of creatures, a passionate devotee of her craft who yet does not have a cynical shell or overblown ego. She has a lot to say about the film and her creative process, and if you can get past her accent, you will learn and enjoy. Richard Donner, Paul Verhoeven, and others (you know who you are!), take note.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Using Roxane as a love interest for Father Shore adds only an annoying, distracting subplot. For some reason, a Catholic priest is rarely allowed to be a sexually normal yet happily celibate person in television and film, and The Third Miracle makes no exception to that rule. While the source of Father Shore's attraction to Roxane is sketchy at best, there is positively no explanation for why Roxane has such an intense passion for Father Shore. Father Shore has quite enough drama and personal faith issues to worry about without the screenwriter inflicting yet another crisis of vows upon the beleaguered priest for the sake of beefing up the script with some artificial sexual tension.
The Third Miracle only begins to scratch the surface of its collection of complex characters. Much as Archbishop Werner gives the impression of being an Old World snob interested in the finery and perks of his office until near the end where he acquires hidden complexity and texture, the main trio of church officials is men of still hidden depth. Bishop Cahill may appear to be only a church politician interested in personal advancement and overly concerned with the affairs of the world, but this may be an overly hasty judgment. Cahill the politician, Werner the patrician scholar and Shore the doubting soldier of faith are all men of faith who make the Church the living, enduring institution that it is, and I was curious to know more about their inner complexities. Furthermore, Brother Gregory is short-changed. His initial, crushing experience with Father Shore was a turning point in his spiritual life, but after that we never really get to know him well enough to understand the driving force behind his monastic robes.
A well-done, modest film about weighty issues, The Third Miracle is a movie for when you are in an introspective, philosophical mood. You certainly don't have to be Catholic to appreciate its fine qualities, but it sure wouldn't hurt. I heartily recommend a rental, and once you watch it through, you may be as charmed as I was to consider a somewhat pricey purchase ($30 retail).
All parties are faithfully acquitted with the thanks of this Court.
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