In The Third Miracle, director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa, The Secret Garden) attempts to breathe new life into a character that has never worked very well anyway – the Catholic priest torn by religious doubt. Father Frank Shore (Ed Harris) has left the Church, choosing to live in a flophouse, take his meals in soup kitchens, and do simple good works in the low-income neighborhood he lives in. The Bishop of his diocese calls him back to investigate reports that a statue of Mary at a Chicago cathedral is weeping tears of blood – tears, it is rumored, that actually flow from a beloved but recently deceased parish worker, Helen O’Regan. Frank is a "postulator," a spiritual detective who investigates the veracity of reported miracles, and his last assignment resulted in the public discrediting of waters with supposed miraculous healing properties. (It was the subsequent damage to the community’s faith that precipitated Frank’s crisis of doubt.) He reluctantly agrees to investigate the statue and Helen’s background, the first steps taken before a recommendation will be made to the Vatican as to whether Helen should become a candidate for sainthood.
Frank’s line, "I want God to show His face again," could be spoken by any of Graham Greene’s beaten-up skeptics. He’s waging a private campaign against his own uncertainty, but he’s also struggling against the moribund state of the Church, personified by the archbishop sent by Rome to undermine his findings. Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is a thoroughgoing control freak. Something has frozen all of his human impulses (he can’t open his mouth without an insinuation coming out of it), and he can sniff apostasy in the air like a bloodhound. Frank must also contend with a young female drug addict whose lupus was cured by Helen years earlier – the first of the three miracles that the Church requires for beatification. Finally, he also must sort out his romantic feelings for Roxanna (Anne Heche), the daughter whom Helen abandoned when she took up parish work.
Ed Harris’ admirers are bound to be disappointed after waiting years to see him in a leading role. At his best, Harris can do more with less than almost any actor going – check out the layers of emotion he conveys with a tick of his head and a cocked eyebrow when the NASA computers go flooey in Apollo 13. But in Miracle he barely registers for long stretches of time; he looks no happier about his job than Frank does. He’s stingy in the allotments of personality he doles out, and the voltage is over-controlled even in the rare moments that he lets himself shine. It’s as if Harris (or Holland) feared that giving Frank a quality so low as charisma would compromise the purity of his character.
Thankfully Anne Heche is around to muss the movie up. As the unhappy woman who wants to deflate her mother’s saintly reputation, Heche does what may be her best work to date. Roxanna is a believably bitter woman, both a little trampy and a little kooky, but she has her own code and it works for her. Heche gets all of this across in her limited screen time. She’s matured as an actor: the whine is gone from her voice and all of her gestures have a purpose to them. She’s confident in her difficult scenes, as when Roxanna gets tipsy at her mother’s grave and comes on to Frank. And she’s alluring, especially when she leans in so close to Frank that she’s almost touching noses with him – you want to faint on his behalf.
Concentrating all of the movie’s sensuality in Roxanna underscores the price that Frank must pay for his faith. But the movie suffers from its air of restraint, which is odd because Miracle isn’t anywhere near as tasteful as it thinks it is. It pretends to give us a balanced picture of the Church, but to point up the casual corruption that’s infected the diocese it uses such obvious devices as a clubby phone conversation between the bishop and a congressman ("How’s your game?," the bishop is heard asking), and by taking a detour to show us the church’s electric devotional candles. (They’d look at home in a Las Vegas wedding chapel.)
There’s no denying the sincerity of The Third Miracle, but it too easily assumes that measured somnolence is the only tone befitting to its subject. Coming hot on the heels of The End of the Affair, another movie positing the reality of miracles that’s also weighed down by its cloistered atmosphere, The Third Miracle makes you wonder what it is about the subject of religion that drains filmmakers of their perspective. Don’t they realize that life would still be vibrant even if God exists?
- Tom Block