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Weekly Alibi Hot Under the Collar

By Devin D. O'Leary

MARCH 13, 2000:  Poor Father Frank Shore. Being a cinematic priest, he must be suffering from some crisis of faith, right? Well, sort of. In the world created by Polish director Agnieszka Holland's The Third Miracle (based on the book by Richard Vetere), questioning one's faith is sort of a given, even for priests. Actually, poor Father Shore (Ed Harris) is suffering more from a crisis of reason. Shore is a church-appointed "spiritual detective" assigned by the Higher Powers to probe the facts behind alleged miracles. Unfortunately, Shore -- who has earned the nickname "The Miracle Killer" -- is a little too good at his job. Having debunked every "miracle" he's ever investigated, Father Shore now wants desperately to find some kind of spiritual validation. It's not his faith that has failed him -- it's his reason. The cold, cynical light of logic has given him no comfort in life. World-weary, slightly embittered and on the verge of giving up the collar entirely, Father Shore is reluctantly called back to duty to investigate reports of an inner city Chicago church and a series of miracles attributed to a recently deceased parishioner. Will this mysterious woman prove to be a true saint, or just another test of Father Shore's embattled beliefs?

The war between reason and faith is at the heart of The Third Miracle. Structured largely like a mystery story with Harris functioning as intrepid detective, The Third Miracle follows Father Shore through his investigation into the life of Helen O'Reagan, a pious European immigrant who spent her entire life serving the destitute and downtrodden of Chicago's mean streets. In the years since her death, a blood-weeping statute and a series of inexplicable cures has led many locals to dub Helen a saint. The Catholic Church doesn't just bestow sainthood on anyone, of course. A long, rigorous process precedes any canonization. Father Shore is merely the first step in the process. Known as a "postulator" -- a priest assigned by the Vatican to investigate miracles and evaluate if the candidate has lived a virtuous life -- it is Father Shore's duty to probe every inch of Helen O'Reagan's life.

His first major stumbling block is O'Reagan's now-grown daughter Roxanna (played by Anne Heche). Roxanna doesn't paint a very loving portrait of her mother -- a woman who abandoned her only daughter at the age of sixteen to serve the church. Does this make Helen a bad mother, or merely a woman so compelled to serve God that she would give up her life's greatest joy? These are the sorts of questions Father Shore must wrestle with in his trail to The Truth -- a Truth he may not actually want to find.

So long as it sticks to its detective story template, The Third Miracle is a compelling, quirky drama. Shot in gritty Serpico-style by Holland (director of Best Foreign Film faves Angry Harvest and Europa, Europa) and cinematographer Jerzy Sielinski, The Third Miracle is filled with dark portents. Who was Helen O'Reagan? Are the miracles attributed to her real? Is it possible that this humble working-class woman was actually a holy saint sent by God? Reveling in the intricate, behind-the-scenes workings of the Catholic Church, The Third Miracle feels quite a bit like a police procedural. Irish cops, Irish priests -- same diff. Unfortunately, the story adds a few extra loops and whirls which prove to be less satisfying.

Harris has a certain virile masculinity that can't be hidden behind a priest's collar. (If anything, the dark duds enhance his sexual presence.) In hooking up with Helen O'Reagan's more-profane-than-holy daughter Roxanna, he finds yet another reason to question his choice of vocations. Seriously attracted to the blunt, straight-shooting gal, Father Shore considers forsaking the Holy Ghost for an energetic roll in the hay. Harris is a great actor -- one of America's most underrated -- and he more than sells the rather hoary concept of "tempted priest" to audiences. Unfortunately, Anne Heche is only really convincing as an actress when she's being disagreeable and slightly bitchy (a state she inhabits throughout most of the film). As a romantic lead she's less than credible (a fact that should have been well-cemented by last summer's Six Days, Seven Nights). As a result, The Third Miracle's star-crossed lovers sub-plot is its least interesting tangent.

About halfway through, the film switches gears entirely from gritty detective story to closed-door courtroom-style drama. Eventually convinced of the veracity of the miraculous claims he's investigating, Father Shore then has the unenviable task of defending the saintly cause of Helen O'Reagan to a Vatican panel (led by Armin Mueller-Stahl). It's still interesting to see the behind-the-scenes workings of the church, but after the mesmerizing metaphysical mystery of the film's first half, the energy level suffers a considerable drop.

In the end, though, The Third Miracle should be congratulated for its unique storyline and reverent approach to religion. Neither a fantasy horror movie a la The Exorcist nor a provocative psychological drama like Priest, The Third Miracle deserves praise for not exploiting the Catholic faith. Uncategorizable in any standard Hollywood sense, this offbeat mystery/love story/courtroom thriller finds a neatly packaged argument for faith in a faithless world.

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