Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Third Miracle, The (1999) ***

Directed by Agnieszka Holland. Written by John Romano and Richard Vetere, based on the novel by Vetere. Photography, Jerzy Zielinski. Editing, David J. Siegel. Production design, Robert De Vico. Music, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Produced by Fred Fuchs, Steven Haft, Elie Samaha. Executive producers, Francis Ford Coppola, Ashok Amritraj, Andrew Stevens.Co-producer, Don Carmody. Cast: Ed Harris (the Rev. Frank Shore), Anne Heche (Roxanna), 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), et al. . A Sony Pictures Classics release.119 minutes. R.(drugs, prostitution)

Been there, done that? Not on your life! "The Third Miracle" is, for my money, more original than other films of its genre, the genre being movies which deal with miracles and/or faith, whether of the blatant "The Exorcist" type, sentimental like "The Song of Bernadette," offbeat like Rossellini's "The Miracle," etc.

"TTM" is not remotely akin to any of the above, or any other film about religion. Outside all sub-genres it is, among other things, a sort of mystery tale (and a Mystery Play in the medieval sense), a detective story, an exploration of the self and of others.

I found it fascinating, beautifully made, and while complex on many levels, not confusing. It major focus is Father Frank Shore (Ed Harris) who, having undergone a crisis of faith, went to live as a layman in Chicago's lower depths, where a colleague from his diocese tracks him down

Recalled by his bishop, Father Frank is given a demanding assignment. He is, in the Church's language, a "postulator," a priest whom a cardinal appoints to evaluate candidates for potential sainthood. Three confirmed miracles are a prerequisite. The postulator prepares what might be compared to a painstakingly minute legal dossier. This may eventually be submitted to the Church's upper echelons. In turn, the judges may or may not forward the case to Rome.

This theological thriller has a solid thread in the person of Father Frank whom we follow through his steps and the arcane procedures of the Church. The putative saint was Helen O'Regan (Barbara Sukowa) who had come to America from Central Europe after World War II. She is said, convincingly, to have cured a girl from lupus. The statue the girl prayed at is now been shedding tears and attracting masses of mostly working-class Polish-Americans from neighborhoods which look (in the director's words) like battlegrounds.

Frank's previous investigations has earned him the nickname of The Miracle Killer as he debunked one (or more? it is unclear) cases. This has affected him and added to his depression. Now Frank is shaken up when he has the statue's tears examined scientifically, and they turn out to be genuine blood. He also meets Helen's daughter, the cynical and colorful Roxanna (Ann Heche). She is a non-believer who resents her late mother's having cared more for the masses than for Roxanna.

The character and personality of the young woman, her antagonism, then her rapport with Father Frank; the trails the priest follows; the types of people he encounters, his duel (so to speak) with a Church committee, are a weird kind of Odyssey. Some people may find the film meandering. Not I. It held my attention at all times. I can only surmise that some Catholics could be entranced by matters they may know little about. But I also think that non-Catholics as well as agnostics, atheists may find the proceedings exerting a strong pull.

A huge factor in all this is the magnificent performance by Ed Harris. A complex, complicated, changing man of -- metaphorically speaking -- many faces which are also one face, Harris delivers acting that is as good as any I have ever seen in what is a devilishly difficult and demanding role He is never ingratiating, but shows un-showy kindness to the lower classes, including drug addicts, peddlers, and prostitutes. His outspokenness with his fellow-priests as well as his superiors is not cockiness, but from the heart. He is smart, he is quick, he is flawed -- and he knows it. There's a basic, deep decency in this man. He has weaknesses, but also practices the ancient Greeks' rule of "know thyself."

The rest of the cast lends excellent support to Harris, whether by connection with him or by disconnection. The church people seem -- at least to viewers who do not have an inside track to them -- warts-and-all realistic and human in individual ways.

Are there major flaws in the movie? I think that this a matter that spectators will decide on an ad hoc basis. Some viewers may be upset by, or feel indignation at Father Frank's carnal lust (I won't elaborate). Others may be impressed by the priest's frankness.I thought that scenes of Frank's immersion in wintry waters (as symbolic re-baptisms?) were over-the-top. On he whole, however, this is the sort of film that one cannot judge for others.

A possible irritation is the portrayal of Archbishop Werner, Frank's opponent during the deliberations. It is overdone, makes that prelate the heavy of the piece. He is played by the admirable Armin Mueller-Stahl who speaks very clear English, but is endowed here with the thickest Teutonic accent of his non-German career.

Director Agnieszka Holland presumably is not religious but has her own fascination with the Catholic Church and the subject of miracles, which she has studied assiduously for this movie

Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1948, Holland, the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, studied cinema at the famous FAMU film school of Prague, worked much with, and learned much from Andrzej Wajda, the master filmmaker just honored at the Oscars 2000.

She became a prominent member of the Polish New Wave. Her bitter movies in Poland were often censored, at least one of them was forbidden during the long Russian occupation. In the mid-eighties she moved to Paris. Since then she has made "Bitter Harvest" starring Ed Harris, about the political killing of liberal, pro-Solidarity Father Popieluszko. Then came the multiple-awards winner "Europa, Europa" in which an Aryan-looking Jewish boy is drafted in the Nazi army. "Olivier, Olivier," "The Secret Garden,""Total Eclipse," and "Washington Square" followed.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel