THIRD MIRACLE, THE

Films that take religious issues seriously are so rare that one
has to be tolerant even of those that are deeply flawed. It’s
easy, on the one hand, to dismiss a travesty like “Stigmata”
for the trash that it is. On the other, one can’t be blinded
the obvious sincerity of “The Third Miracle” into ignoring the
fact that it has some serious problems, too.

The plot is concerned with an investigation by the Catholic
Church of the possible sanctity of a recently-deceased Chicago
housekeeper; the probe is carried out by a priest (Ed Harris)
on behalf of the local diocese, and his positive finding is in
time challenged by a Vatican archbishop who takes the role of
“devil’s advocate” opposing the proposed canonization.

This central element of “The Third Miracle” is handled very
well. The treatment of the parish where the marvels attributed
to the candidate are occurring is nicely shaded, with the
pastor and the believers portrayed without the crude
exaggeration one often finds in such circumstances. The
seriousness of the process, moreover, is expertly caught.

But once all that is said, the fact remains that what might
have been a powerfully moving film has unfortunately been
compromised by recourse to some very obvious and unconvincing
dramaturgy. First, the investigating priest, or postulator in
the ecclesiastical lexicon, is saddled with a seemingly
inevitable “crisis of faith” which leads him into a romantic
entanglement with the agnostic daughter of the candidate for
canonization. This is frankly a lazy and rather offensive
device to insert some conflict into the larger story, and it’s
completely unnecessary, too. Happily the performance of Ed
Harris, as the troubled priest, is so elementally strong that
it allows the picture to get past this difficulty less maimed
than one might have expected. As the daughter, on the other
hand, Anne Heche is barely tolerable, overemoting dreadfully;
but then, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have dealt
successfully with so thinly-constructed a characer.

A second major flaw lies in the figure of the Vatican bishop
sent to dispute the postulator’s finding. He’s written as so
smug and officious–you can tell he’s a worldly, false-hearted
prelate, it seems, from the fact that he likes good food and
listens to classical music–that he becomes a caricature of
churchly imperfection. And he’s played by Armin Mueller-Stahl
with such venomous snideness that you’d think he was
auditioning for the role of Snake in the Garden of Eden.

There are other difficulties, too, mostly arising from the
very literary quality of the material, which probably worked
better on the page than it does on the screen (the final
revelation involving a flashback to World War II Europe, for
instance, makes sense, but can’t help seeming artificial in
cinematic terms, though in a novel it might work perfectly
well). But on the whole director Agnieszka Holland has
managed to play to the script’s strengths while concealing its
weaknesses as much as possible. Holland has had a varied
career, with works ranging from the superb “Europa Europa” and
“The Secret Garden” to the unjustly neglected 1997 version of
“Washington Square” to the abominable “Total Eclipse.” Here
she’s managed to create a film which, while imperfect, at least
tries to deal with important themes in an honest and symathetic
way.

“The Third Miracle” has its faults, therefore, but its basic
integrity of vision makes it one of the few pictures on a
religious theme that one can take seriously. It neither offers
easy answers nor cops out at the end, and so becomes a rare
thing, an admirable if flawed cinematic attempt to consider
the possibility of divine intervention in human affairs.