Los Angeles Times

The Third Miracle


Wednesday December 29, 1999

     Pay close attention to the fast-moving opening sequence of "The Third Miracle," Agnieszka Holland's complex, challenging and impressive film from the Richard Vetere novel. A title card announces that we're in Bystrica, a quaint town in Slovakia, 1944. Suddenly there's a strong rumble, marking not the onslaught of an earthquake but of an Allied bombing attack on German factories there.
     A little Gypsy girl awakens with her large family, grabs a small statue of the Madonna and child, and instead of fleeing the center of town with everyone else, heads for Bystrica's central cathedral. There on its steps, she drops to her knees in prayer and notices another likeness of the Madonna and child adorning the building. Only two people notice her: the church's priest, who has urged her to flee, and a wounded German soldier lying in the back of a truck.
     As the little girl prays, the scene suddenly goes silent, leaving us to wonder what has happened to the bombs. As "The Third Miracle" evolves into a spiritual odyssey and a detective mystery, you will want to remember as many details of this prologue as you can.
     Director Holland cuts to Chicago, 1979, and cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski's fluid camera picks up a gaunt, ascetic-looking man (Ed Harris) with an intent, blue-eyed gaze among a large number of the city's street people. When a young priest (Michael Rispoli) seeks him out, we learn that Harris' Frank Shore is a priest who for the past two months has dropped out of the church.
     Father Shore is a postulator for the Roman Catholic Church, charged with the most rigorous possible investigations of accounts of miracles and claims of sainthood. A series of flashbacks as terse and abrupt as the film's opening sequence reveals Father Shore to be haunted by the devastating impact of his latest investigation, for which he, in refuting claims of miracles, blames himself for "destroying the faith of an entire community."
     But now there's a new reported miracle occurring in an impoverished, multicultural, inner-city neighborhood, and the forceful, tough-minded and politically astute Bishop Cahill (Charles Haid) wants Frank back on the job immediately.
     It seems that five years earlier, an Austrian-born parish worker, Helen O'Regan (Barbara Sukowa), placed her hands on a very ill girl suffering from terminal lupus, curing her instantly. Flashbacks show Helen to be a selfless woman with a radiant smile who dedicated herself to the needy children of the neighborhood. Helen has since died, and the statue of the Madonna has started to bleed--only in November and only when it rains.
     Parishioners claim that the tears that flow from the Madonna's eyes are the blood of Helen and that they possess the power to heal. Bishop Cahill has a burgeoning Lourdes on his hands and wants Frank to start investigating right now.
     In his present state, Frank would rather prove than disprove Helen's miraculous gifts. This sets him against church hierarchy, which, from a political and an ecclesiastical view, would prefer miracles to be debunked. The more he applies scientific tests, the more convinced he is that Helen is a candidate for sainthood. His pursuit is not without irony: That 11-year-old girl saved by Helen is now a drug-addicted prostitute, and Helen's own daughter Roxanna (Anne Heche) remains bitter over her mother. Helen abandoned Roxanna when Roxanna was only 16--and fatherless by then as well--to move into the church's convent to work with the children. But who is Helen anyway? What is her full story?
     These are the biggest questions facing Frank as he endorses Helen's candidacy for sainthood amid a convocation of august church authorities dominated by the Vatican's arrogant, rigid representative, Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose strict adherence to dogma puts him immediately at odds with Frank. Meanwhile, the bluntly nonreligious, sharp and stunningly attractive Roxanna represents an unexpected temptation for Frank.
     From her script collaborations with Poland's veteran master director Andrzej Wajda, Holland has moved on to an adventurous, international career. She first won acclaim for "Angry Harvest," in which Mueller-Stahl played a solitary Polish farmer who shelters a Jewish refugee during World War II, and was widely praised for most of her subsequent films, especially "Europa, Europa," the true story of a Jewish youth who survived World War II as a German soldier. Holland has become a vigorous, boldly authoritative director who demands the utmost concentration of audiences; let your attention wander for a second and you may lose the narrative thread of this most convoluted and elliptical film.
     "The Third Miracle" seems a masterwork--provided you're caught up in it from a beginning calculated to throw you off balance. That Holland has been able to evoke the miraculous owes much to Harris, for he has the impassioned intelligence to sustain Frank's driving, obsessive quest, and Heche and Mueller-Stahl are in their differing ways expert foils; all three are smart and exceptionally articulate. "The Third Miracle" has the gritty, intimate feel of an Eastern European film--and packs the power of a genuine revelation.

The Third Miracle, 1999. R, for some language, sex-related and violent images, and brief drug use. A Sony Pictures Classics release of an American Zoetrope/Haft Entertainment presentation. Director Agnieszka Holland. Producers Fred Fuchs, Steven Haft, Elie Samaha. Executive producers Francis Ford Coppola, Ashok Amritraj, Andrew Stevens. Screenplay John Romano, Richard Vetere; based on the novel by Vetere. Cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski. Editor David J. Siegel. Music Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Costumes Denise Cronenberg. Production designer Robert De Vico. Art director Andrew M. Stearn. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Ed Harris as Father Frank Shore. Anne Heche as Roxanna. Armin Mueller-Stahl as Archbishop Werner. Barbara Sukowa as Helen O'Regan.

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