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THIRD MIRACLE, THE(director: Agnieszka Holland; screenwriters: John Romano/based on the novel by Richard Vetere; cinematographer: Jerzy Zielinski; editor: David J. Siegel; cast: Ed Harris ( Rev. Frank Shore), Anne Heche (Roxanna Witkowski), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Archbishop Werner), Barbara Sukowa (Helen O’Regan), Charles Haid (Bishop Cahill), Jean-Louis Roux (Cardinal Sarrazin), Ken James (Father Paul Panak), Caterina Scorsone (Maria Witkowski), James Gallanders (Brother Gregory), Michael Rispoli (John Leone); Runtime: 119; Sony Pictures Classics; 1999)
“There would have to be a fourth miracle to get me to be a believer in this flick.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A stiffly told story of how miracles are proven by the Roman Catholic Church and how the church goes about choosing a saint. The film’s leaden pace and pancake look and wooden acting, are all major detractions. The only possible exception in the thespian department comes from the unfettered performance by Ed Harris as Father Frank Shore, the one questioning his faith while acting as the postulator–a priest appointed by the church authorities to investigate if a sainthood is warranted. At least, he was lively and looked as if he was into the part.

This detective-like story revolves around the church’s investigation of the would-be saint, an ordinary, illiterate, laywoman, Helen O’Regan (Barbara Sukowa), who immigrated to Chicago from Austria after WW 11. During the investigation some mysterious circumstances about her early childhood crops up, even disputing where she was born. She lived in the church’s rectory and ran a soup kitchen where she dedicated her life to helping the poor Polish-American community, whose neighborhood looks like a replica of bombed-out Germany after WW11.

I’m not a believer in miracles, nor am I disbeliever in miracles. I just don’t think an orthodox religion, one that demands blind faith and obedience from its members can find the truth about such spiritual matters (that’s why I’m a non-believer). For me, a miracle is when someone overcomes their karma and finds enlightenment and is able to be filled with love, living without illusions, and who can convey this feeling to others and make the world a better place to live in. The only proof needed for such a miracle is in the freedom felt from within by the person experiencing it. But for those who are religiously orthodox, they need some proof that God can hear their prays. This serious-minded film with its lack of kitsch, supposedly, can shed some light how a Catholic saint is chosen and how miracles are documented by the church. But, unfortunately, the story is not able to overcome the handicaps of its plodding ways.

The 52-year-old, Polish-born director, Agnieszka Holland, raised in a Communist country, whose father was Jewish and mother was a Catholic, is supposedly a practicing Catholic, which might explain why her adopted religion is treated with kid gloves and only marginally criticized. In my opinion, the process of choosing a saint is just as much political as religious, and the director waffled in which direction to go. In the end, she chose to cop-out with one of those slick unsatisfactory modern endings, which is contrary to the underpinnings of this very European-styled film. It results in a draw between the rivals within the church structure, and who feels satisfied walking away from an event and not having a winner!

In Chicago, circa 1979, a priest (Rispoli), who is a friend and colleague of Father Frank, finds him living in an inner-city shelter, collecting himself from the growing doubts he has about being a priest. Father Frank is being called back to service by Bishop Cahill (Haid), whom he has worked for in the past and under him has developed the reputation of being called “the miracle killer,” because of his cynicism.

Father Frank confesses to a friend that he became a priest not because he was chosen, but because his policeman father was shot while he was a teen-ager and he prayed to God that if his father lives he will become a priest and dedicate his life to God. His father lived but three months later, after he entered the seminary– he died.

The politically motivated bishop assigns Father Frank the role of postulator in the O’Regan case, after being pressured by local officials that a statue Helen prayed to, of the Virgin Mother, is tearing blood. Blood samples taken from the statue will test positive for the same blood-type Helen had. This only happens in November, the month the would-be saint died, and the working-class believers gather there to receive her blessings. There is no rational explanation for this occurrence.

Since there are three confirmed miracles needed as a prerequisite to confirm a saint the postulator prepares his report (positio) on her in detail, trying to gather evidence of her miracles. This will be submitted to the Church’s upper echelons. If favorable, the church officials may forward the case to Rome for final approval.

The priest gets someone to help him collect evidence, a true believer, Brother Gregory (Gallanders). He then meets the putative saint’s daughter, Roxanna (Heche), who feels her mother abandoned her to the church and withheld her love from her. She therefore refuses to help in the investigation. The priest finds her attractive and in his search for the truth, which becomes as much about finding himself than in getting to the truth about his subject, he battles the church’s belief that miracles are real and can actually be proven by science if they are authentic. Father Frank is also battling his inner feelings of doubt, and his recurring bouts of lust are added to this battle scenario.

The priest discovers he has a carnal interest in Roxanna which he is able to resolve; but it is done in such a banal way, with no chemistry between the two to justify their relationship.

Father Frank’s steadfast mission now becomes to get the sainthood for Helen, as if that will make him a believer again. He is opposed by the disdainful Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), “the devil’s advocate,” who talks in a muffled German accent as if he were playing Brando’s Godfather part and had wads of cotton stuck in his mouth. The rivalry between these two sparked no particular interest seeming like old hat villainy, seen in countless films. It’s a battle between a man of the people and a snob favoring the elite as their battle of wits seemed witless, being fought in a room with a long conference table before them like they were in a board room of a business corporation.

The film just died from exhaustion and couldn’t be revived as easily as the girl was who had lupus. Maria Witkowski’s (Scorsone) unexplained recovery from that incurable disease, after being touched by Helen, is the miracle that the church is now examining for authenticity. She lived only to become a teenage junkie and prostitute. But she was not so lucky after a severe beating from a pimp, she was placed on life support. But she was again miraculously revived when she was taken off life-support, as if Helen was still with her and her touch was still effective.

It was difficult to be absorbed by the story, as the acting was stilted and the process of choosing a saint did not enlighten me as to what really happens in the church back rooms. I found it impossible to believe anything Father Frank found about Helen would, necessarily, make her a saint, except for political reasons to satisfy the faithful. I don’t know what I learned, or what the film tried to deliver as a message, and I did not find it entertaining. I preferred the much more flawed recent miracle film, Stigmata. This miracle film had very little movement and took few risks in the sober-minded way its story was told. So much for the intelligent telling of a story, if the story is not convincing. There would have to be a fourth miracle to get me to be a believer in this flick.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”