Father Frank Shore (Ed Harris) is a postulator, a priest whose chore is to investigate possible candidates for sainthood, to examine the evidence of any miracles, to probe the virtuousness of the nominee’s life – in short, to bring a coldly rational sense of inquiry into a highly emotional area of belief.
Father Frank is very good at his job, so much so that it threatens to rupture his own faith. As the film opens we find him working in a soup kitchen, a heavy charity gig which he seems to be using to atone for his last major debunking. Destroying the hopes of people who are already living under a burden of surplus helplessness is beginning to take its toll.
But Father Frank is pressed into service one more time. Reluctant at first, he soon finds himself drawn into the case of the recently deceased Helen O’Regan (Barbara Sukowa) who, besides having an aura of saintliness that even a nonbeliever could spot, was allegedly responsible for the curing of a young girl who was dying of lupus. Complications ensue when Frank meets Helen’s daughter (Anne Heche) and a mutual attraction develops, becoming another nudge away from the church.
The Third Miracle, capably directed by Agnieszka Holland, is a film which successfully walks a tightrope for its first two-thirds, before beginning to falter and fatally slip. It takes a hard-nosed view of the Catholic Church hierarchy – a not necessarily corrupted but certainly jaded bunch – and a sympathetic view of the mostly lower-class types for whom miracles offer a much-needed psychic balm. The supernatural aspects of religious faith are treated with a thoughtful ambiguity and much is left to the viewer’s interpretation.
The acting is exemplary. Ed Harris can agonize with the best of them and Heche, an actress many people seem to dislike, gives another intelligent performance. Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays a kind of deus ex machina, is all Old World soulfulness, but by then the story is in trouble.
Our patience with the film’s deliberate pacing goes unrewarded, as its carefully maintained mood collapses under the weight of its final contrivances – something that can be attributed not to a higher power but to a lowly scenario looking for a quick-fix ending.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].