POLICE PROCEDURALS are a well-defined genre in print, on TV, and at the movies, where the good guy methodically tracks down the bad guy. In The Third Miracle, however, we have a different sort of detective.
In 1979 Chicago, Father Frank Shore (Ed Harris) is called out of semi-retirement to investigate the case of a weeping statue and its connection with a possible subject for canonization: the poor, dead, former WWII refugee Helen (Barbara Sukowa). His role as postulator is to first scrutinize the alleged miracles attributed to this prospective saint, then later switch roles and become an advocate for her canonization. (Three miracles and you're in the club.)
THE THIRD MIRACLE
directed by Agnieszka Holland
with Ed Harris, Anne Heche, and Armin Mueller-Stahl
opens February 11 at Seven Gables
For Agnieszka Holland, best known for Europa Europa (1990), this is a story of small scale and profound seriousness. She treats the eponymous 1997 novel by Richard Vetere with the utmost respect—more than it's due. The smug, prosperous Catholic bureaucracy is burnished as it was in The Godfather, while Shore's ultimate showdown with a pompous archbishop (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is treated like a courtroom thriller—complete with Perry Mason-style table thumping and final confession.
Harris brings formidable craft and dignity to his clich餠role, a drinking, wayward priest who still wants to believe, despite his past experience with fake weeping statues, and who inevitably feels the temptation of the flesh—with the supposed saint's daughter, fidgety Anne Heche. Their scenes together convey a convincing, barely repressed adult sexuality, but their thin characters—like every other in this failed film—are linked by the flimsiest of screenplay conceits. Harris searching the sordid alleys for the beneficiary of Helen's healing power is like some ecclesiastical parody of Starsky and Hutch. As he pays informants from the window of his battered sedan, you half expect Huggy Bear to approach the car.
The word on the street is that the lady was indeed a saint, but you're past caring when the courtroom shouting begins. Holland's film certainly looks great, and her flashbacks to Helen's childhood in 1944 Slovakia suggest a bigger, better, wartime story reflecting her European roots. To its credit, The Third Miracle respects the power and essential uncertainty of belief, placing it well above The Green Mile but well below The End of the Affair among recent religious-themed movies.