The Austin Chronicle

The Third Miracle

Rated R, 119 min. Directed by Agnieszka Holland. Starring Ed Harris, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Anne Heche, Barbara Sukowa, Charles Haid.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Sat., March 4, 2000

Ever since The Exorcist, we've come to expect movies about the spirit world to be filled with lots of special effects, flashing lights, and green-pea soup. The popular conception of contact between human beings and their spiritual counterparts tends now to be fraught with frightening images of fiery explosions, mystical hijinks, and gravity-defying stunts. Rare is the movie that declares the relationship between humans and spirits to be contemplative, supportive, yearning, or hard of hearing. The Third Miracle jumps into the abyss with its realistic examination of a priest who doubts his faith. Ironically, this priest has been called on to serve as a “postulator,” a spiritual detective requested by the local bishop to investigate whether a candidate is worthy of being advocated for sainthood. Ed Harris is a good choice for playing the film's pivotal role of Father Frank Shore. He brings to the role a strong sense of the character's earthiness and intelligence. The more he investigates the candidate under question, the more he finds himself lusting for her resentful and non-believing daughter (Heche). The scenes between Harris and Heche are unusually stirring. Yet this priest seems to want to have things both ways. He wants to believe in miracles and the spiritual order of the world. Nevertheless, he finds himself in a position of disproving miracles and doubting all things spiritual. He argues that people need belief in their lives, yet his internal logic won't allow this belief for himself. His struggle is an internal battle, quiet and unshowy in terms of usual movie theatrics. No pea soup, in other words, but that's exactly what's interesting about The Third Miracle. Director Holland (Europa Europa, The Secret Garden) is an old hand at conveying characters who are at home in their private worlds. Also of interest here is the portrait of the Catholic Church as a giant corporation. Armin Mueller-Stahl and Charles Haid are particularly memorable as Church operatives hardly any different than their counterparts in a corporate hierarchy. The problem with The Third Miracle is that it is thematically ambiguous and never lays out its position on whether it thinks saints are or are not real. The third act bogs down with theoretical debates that are highly specific and visually staid. Sometimes there is a lot to be said for green-pea soup.

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