Father Frank Shore became a priest after promising God that he would do so if his policeman father
survived a near fatal shooting. But he seems to have always been at least somewhat skeptical about the
whole deal. When we are introduced to him in the film he has gone well beyond simple skepticism
and is living in an inner city Chicago flophouse, openly doubting his calling. But the local bishop has
need of his services, however reluctant, because Frank serves as a postulator, investigating alleged
miracles and potential saints, and at the moment strong claims are being put forward for the
beatification of an immigrant woman named Helen O'Regan.
O'Regan has been dead for several years but on the day of her memorial service a young girl who she
had befriended entered the church covered in blood which had dripped from the eyes of a statue as she
prayed to or for Helen. The event would be remarkable enough in its own right, but even more
startling is the fact that it cured the child of lupus. Since that time parishioners have come to believe
that the statue, which performs similarly during rainstorms every November (the month of Helen's
death), has healing powers and that Helen was a saint.
Frank has earned a reputation as a debunker of such claims, and with it the nickname "The Miracle
Killer", but his most recent effort precipitated his downward spiral. In that case Frank himself felt
intimations of the divine and even witnessed a miraculous cure, but he ultimately disproved the virtue
of the cleric involved. His crisis of conscience resulted from the knowledge that he had destroyed
peoples faith in something tangible, even if extrareligious, in the service of a Church and a God that he
is not certain he truly believes in. Now he wants "God to show his face", in order that he may believe
that it has all been worthwhile. And so he heads off to St. Stanislaus with a doubting mind but an
open heart. Everything that he finds there gives him reason to believe in Helen O'Reagan.
This portion of the movie is very much a classic detective story, a kind of Catholic hard-boiled noir,
with Frank as the gumshoe. The main complication that Frank faces in this phase of the case is an
attraction to the daughter Helen pretty much abandoned when she entered the church. That daughter,
Roxanne (Ann Heche), sixteen at the time but now grown, is naturally resentful and baffled by the
notion that her mother might become just the fourth American saint. Given the conventions of
Hollywood this love interest is probably inevitable and it is handled as well as could possibly be
expected, but it would be a better film without it.
In the second half of the movie, which becomes a courtroom melodrama, Frank has to defend the case
for Helen's sainthood against an extremely hostile and Ameriphobic devil's advocate, an Archbishop
(played by Armin Mueller-Stahl) who is visiting from Rome. Frank's own wavering faith becomes an
issue in the hearing, but so too does the Archbishop's personal unwillingness to grant the possibility
that an uncultured American immigrant woman could be a vessel of God.
Director Agnieskia Holland is not quite at top form here, at least not at the peak level she reached in
Europa, Europa and The Secret Garden, but she never stoops to condescend to this material, which is
pretty unusual in the modern cinema. There are some characterizations that are a tad too hackneyed
and some of the shots at the Catholic Church are too easy, too cheap, to be taken seriously; but even
the villains, all clerics, of the piece ultimately prove to have more complex motivations than we first
believe. Meanwhile, there are some really fine set pieces, particularly the discussions between Frank
and his colleagues, where faith is taken seriously and discussed with passion, insight, and altogether
Now, for each of these essays I try to find all the links I can to other reviews that are available online.
In doing so for this movie I was first amused then angered by the frequency with which the following
sentiment cropped up : this is yet another film about a priest wrestling with his faith. Yet another?
Hold back the deluge!
This is not to say that the central dilemma here is unique; it is not. It treads some of the ground
covered by The Exorcist, which despite its reputation as a mere horror film is a compelling depiction
of a priest's struggle to believe, but it does so without all the special effects, profanity, and other
shockers and its particular concerns are very different. I guess it is also somewhat similar to Stigmata
which was unfortunately released at roughly the same time. But so what? If Silence of the Lambs
didn't exhaust the topic of serial killers and Porky's didn't obviate the need for inane scatological teen
comedies, a bare handful of films sure as Hell didn't dispose of the questions surrounding belief in
God. The winner of the Academy Award in 2000, which I think is when Third Miracle would have
been eligible, was American Beauty. Did we really need yet another look at the desperation of the
suburbs and the dysfunctioning family? The answer is : if the film is good, by all means, another look
is fine. But the same goes for The Third Miracle and the subjects it deals with.
I don't know; maybe the questions raised in the Third Miracle just resonate with me because I've
reached a certain age and temperament, but I find the problem of faith to be quite fascinating. How,
in an Age of Reason and of Skepticism, can we believe in a God who no longer chooses to reveal
himself to us through prophets, messiahs, and miracles? Personally, I find the intellectual case for
God to be compelling, but a miracle would sure close the deal. At any rate, if your mind is so closed
that you can not allow for the possibility of God or the miraculous, or if you think the serious
exploration of religious faith has become as ubiquitous as the car chase in recent movies, by all means,
skip this one. But if you appreciate great acting (Ed Harris is especially good) and beautiful film
making, and you're still curious about why we do or don't choose to believe in God, then you owe it to
yourself to watch The Third Miracle.
GRADE : B+