Friday, October 06, 2006


THE THIRD MIRACLE (1999, USA, Agnieszka Holland, Richard Vetere & John Romano screenplay, Vetere novel)
You ask me, God wasted a miracle.

The border between the countries of faith and unbelief is as arbitrary as the ones we invent to mark the boundaries of more earthly kingdoms, as invisible to the naked eye. For some, passing from one side to the other is as clear and identifiable a moment as passing through a border checkpoint into a new land. For others, the two are separated by a vast no man's land, and they can find themselves stranded between warring kingdoms, unable to find their way safely to either side.

Frank Shore is such a man, a priest whose certainties about God, faith and vocation have been shattered while investigating miraculous cures which follow the death of a beloved fellow priest. Now he is called on by the Church to consider the possibility that Helena Regan, a widowed volunteer at an inner city Chicago church, may have been a saint.

What is striking about this film – apart from its fine performances and deftly structured story-telling – is that it takes questions of faith and doubt so seriously, and treats them with such a mature understanding. The story's essential question would seem to be this woman's sanctity, but that's mostly just the engine of the plot: the deeper question this film asks is whether faith, once lost, can be regained, and how such a perilous journey might be accomplished. It is the story of a man's soul.

In fact it is the story of two men's souls. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays Archbishop Werner, appointed by Rome to make the case against Regan's sainthood. In this he serves the church, which has no desire to beatify bogus saints, though it seems clear enough he takes considerable personal satisfaction in his task, as if dismayed that God might stoop so low as to work miracles through an American, and a distinctly ordinary one at that; she herself led a troubled life, her own daughter is alienated from her, she wasn't even a nun! It is the collision of Werner's arrogance and certainty with Shore's brokenness and doubt that drive the film. Ed Harris is utterly convincing in the role: as Andrew Greeley says (and he should know), Harris "looks so much like a priest that he probably ought to be one."

Which comes very close to the heart of THE THIRD MIRACLE. Frank Shore may look like a priest, he may not act like a priest, he certainly doesn't believe like a priest, but should he be one? Is he one? Helena Regan may or may not look like your image of a saint – or Archbishop Werner's – but is she one? What does sanctity look like? How many miracles does it take to prove such a thing?

And what constitutes a miracle? The young girl who was apparently healed by her is now a lost soul, a deeply troubled drug-addicted prostitute. Why would God heal someone, only to consign them to a life of misery?

This is a truly exceptional film that manages to be accessible and entertaining as well as substantial and thought-provoking. A strictly commercial American treatment might have dumbed down the story's miraculous elements into supernatural horror movie gimmicks, but director Agnieszka Holland brings a European sensibility that treats these themes with a thoughtful maturity as she lets her characters wrestle with real grown-up questions.

I say "her" characters. Credit where credit's due: novelist Richard Vetere laid the foundation here, and in making the transition from page to screen worked with Hollywood veteran John Romano to trim secondary themes and add a new narrative thread that generates real complexity and a terrifically satisfying story resolution.

THE THIRD MIRACLE came along at the end of the last millenium, one of a flurry of films that took faith and miracles seriously, heralding a new openness to religious themes and believing characters on the big screen. In the ensuing years THE MATRIX, AMERICAN BEAUTY and MAGNOLIA have all proven themselves to be massively popular films – in my opinion, deservedly so. But I urge you to seek out this smaller, quieter film, may in its own way prove a more mature and substantial consideration of spiritual themes than many of its more virtuosic contemporaries.


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