Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Third Miracle: A Review

As mentioned in an earlier post, I love priest movies. The Third Miracle is one of my favourites. The film, directed by Agnieszka Holland, tells the story of a Chicago priest, Father Frank Shore (played by Ed Harris), whose faith was badly shaken when a popular priest he was investigating for sainthood turned out to be a Satanist and a depressive who likely committed suicide. Father Shore is brought back from the flophouse he has installed himself in and is ordered by the bishop to gather the facts in a new case, that of Helen O’Reagan, an ordinary but pious woman who is credited with causing a statue to shed tears of blood, blood which has apparently already cured one young girl of lupus. The statue only bleeds when it rains and only in November, the month in which Helen O’Reagan died.

Early in the course of the investigation, Father Shore meets Helen’s daughter Roxane (Anne Heche), who is bitter because her mother abandoned her at the age of sixteen to enter a convent. Roxane is dismissive of sainthood in general and of her mother’s cause in particular, but in their first meeting a spark is lit between her and the postulator; soon it is not only Father Shore’s faith that is in danger. Just as relations between the two characters begin to seriously heat up, however, the case for Helen’s sainthood is strengthened by the evidence that the blood shed by the statue is not only real, it is Helen’s type. The priest makes the choice to plead Helen’s cause to Rome, and Roxane is left in the lurch.

The second part of the film deals with the tribunal that is held in the Chicago archdiocese. Two cardinals and an archbishop preside. The archbishop (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a rigid and arrogant German, is opposed to Helen’s cause and hostile to the postulator Shore. During the tribunal the girl who was supposedly cured of lupus several years earlier and who is now an addict and prostitute, is brought back from death; this becomes the first official miracle attributed to Helen. In the end we learn that the German archbishop was present when another miracle occurred. He was a young German soldier in a Slovak town bombed by the Allies late in World War II. During one bombing raid, he witnessed a young girl pray to a statue of the Virgin Mary in the town square and the bombs immediately turn into flocks of pigeons. The young girl was Helen O’Reagan. Father Shore’s case appears to be on its way to being made.

At the end of the movie, we see Frank Shore, three years after the tribunal, as an ordinary, and obviously very content, parish priest who has just given First Communion to a group of children. Suddenly as the children run off, he sees Roxane, who now has a baby. They speak pleasantly and then go their separate ways.

The Third Miracle was reviewed by Stephen Holden of The New York Times when it came out in late 1999. I have seen the movie several times and respectfully disagree with Mr. Holden’s assessment. Here is some of what he says:

One of the problems of ''The Third Miracle''…is that it wants to have it both ways. By showing a statue of the Virgin Mary dripping with blood and portraying the sudden miraculous recovery of a teenage prostitute from a coma, it seems to confirm the faith of believers. The tone of the rest of the film, however, is deeply skeptical.
As the debate over Helen's eventual canonization intensifies, Father Shore, who argues in her behalf, goes up against Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), an imperious European cleric, and the movie becomes bogged down in fussy theological arguments and an investigation into Helen's childhood in Slovakia during World War II. Even given its rich, finely shaded performances and intellectual subtleties, ''The Third Miracle'' ends up feeling more like an exercise, a carefully outlined set of variations on a challenging theme, than a movie that had to be made.

This film is not about “the faith of believers,” nor is the tone sceptical, even though some of the main characters are. Moreover, there are no “fussy theological arguments” in the movie and it decidedly does not involve “a carefully outlined set of variations on a challenging theme.” The Third Miracle is the story of a man—a priest—who has lost, and who recovers, his faith. It is interesting that the reviewer does not give us his take on the movie’s title. What is the “third miracle”? To me it is quite clear: the miracle is Father Shore’s rediscovered faith and vocation as a priest.

There are a number of serious flaws in this movie, the worst of which are several outrageous coincidences. The first of these occurs when Father Shore is visiting the police precinct his late father worked in. We hear some commotion and, lo and behold, Roxane is brought in wearing handcuffs and loudly protesting her innocence over an alleged traffic violation. This incredible chance meeting sets up the scenes to follow in which the priest begins to fall for Roxane. An entire set of coincidences involves the German archbishop who just happened to be present at the miracle which could decide the sainthood of Helen O’Reagan, and who just happens to be a prominent member of the Vatican congregation that decides on sainthood, and who just happens to be in the U.S. on a lecture tour when the tribunal is called. Another problem with the film has to do with stereotypes: Archbishop Werner is an almost ridiculous caricature of an imperious German, and Bishop Cahill of Shore’s diocese is the stereotypical well-fed, well-connected prince of the Church who cares more for appearance and his own power and position than he does for his priests or his flock.

What makes this movie work—at least for me—in spite of the rather serious issues noted above, are the performances of Harris and Heche. I never doubt for a second that Frank Shore is a good man who is in a painful struggle for his faith; the man wants to believe, to conquer his doubts, to be a real priest. Harris takes us on a tour of the symptoms and manifestations of this struggle: the anguish, the anger, the weakness, the despair, the hope, and finally the peace. Heche is both beautiful and magnificent in her role as Roxane. The combined cynicism and vulnerability of this woman can be seen in every gesture and every facial expression. Her bitterness and her need for love can be heard in every word she speaks. I have not seen Anne Heche in other films, but if this performance is an indication of her talent, she is a fine actress indeed.

The Third Miracle does not romanticize the priesthood, nor does it (intentionally) caricaturize or ridicule it. Frank Shore is a real man in a real life crisis who is given an opportunity for redemption by striving for something much greater than he is. It is in the striving rather than winning that the miracle of redemption takes place.

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