The Third Miracle

Religion, when it is dealt with at all, is usually mocked in movies, and religious characters are generally foolish for having faith.

It’s either that, or the movies are shamelessly preachy and overbearing. For some reason, a film that examines faith and miracles with honesty and realism is a rarity. (Some would say this is because most people in Hollywood are not themselves religious, so they don’t know how to write about it realistically. I’m not going to say that, but some would.)

“The Third Miracle” is just such a rarity, an oddly uplifting, soul-searching sort of movie with an intriguing premise and solid acting, not to mention deliberate and somber direction from Agnieszka Holland (“The Secret Garden”).

Father Frank Shore (the underrated Ed Harris) is a Chicago priest in 1979, suffering a crisis of faith after an incident involving one Father Falcone, who committed suicide but was so beloved by his parishioners that they began to fake miracles on his behalf in an attempt to have him granted sainthood.

Frank, as a postulator — one who investigates whether a person should canonized — discovered the fraud, thus earning him the derisive nickname “The Miracle Killer” and causing him to leave traditional priest work to hang out in a soup kitchen for several months.

He’s called back into action, though, when a statue outside St. Stanislav’s in Chicago starts crying tears of blood. The locals believe it to be the blood of Helen O’Regan, who died seven years earlier after a life of dedicated service, albeit as a layperson, to the church and the community at large. Many think she should receive sainthood, and the tears of blood — which have supposedly healed people — is proof of her holy status.

Frank is determined to give the whole thing a fair and impartial look, calling in chemists to determine if it’s real blood (it is, and it’s Helen’s type, too), and tracking down the lupus-stricken young girl (Caterina Scorsone) who was supposedly cured by the blood on the day of Helen’s funeral — a girl who has now turned to a life of prostitution and drugs. (“God wasted a miracle,” her mother says.)

All of this comes at a time when the Catholic Church is skeptical about canonizing anyone, especially an American. As the devil’s advocate Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl) keeps pointing out, America has only produced three saints so far, and Helen, he insists, doesn’t qualify.

Of little help is Helen’s daughter, Roxanne (Anne Heche), who doesn’t believe in Catholicism and in fact felt abandoned when her mom devoted her life to the church full-time when Roxanne was 16. It also doesn’t help that Father Frank — who doubts himself and his calling more than he doubts his religion — is attracted to her.

The subplot of Frank and Roxanne’s attraction, and his possible defrocking, is almost embarrassingly weak and unconvincing. Not only do the two have no chemistry together (though they’re fine separately), but that entire device is contrived. Let Frank doubt himself, fine. But to have a woman be the temptation is overdone and simply doesn’t work in this film.

Setting that aside, we have a film that is entirely honest with itself and with its audience. Maria was healed of her lupus, but her life turned out rotten. Frank became a priest in exchange for God letting his father live, and then his father died just months after Frank finished seminary. Frank’s supervisor, Bishop Cahill (Charles Haid), is vulgar and cavalier about any claims to miracles (“They claim she’s racked up a few cures,” he says dismissively of Helen). The church itself is seen as a huge bureaucracy, run by extremely fallible men.

Yet at the same time, the whole thing builds up to a theme of individual faith and devotion. The point, we see, is that in spite of these seeming contradictions, God still does exist and can play a vital role in our lives. The point is made several times that no one — not even the high-and-mighty cardinals and archbishops — can claim to know the will of God.

In order to be declared a saint, one must have three miracles. Two are discussed in the movie, though their validity is the central issue at hand. The third miracle must be important, as it gave the film its title. What that miracle is, is suggested subtly — perhaps too subtly, which is a shame, as it may leave the viewer somewhat unsatisfied with the ending — and director Holland has said herself that it’s open to interpretation. Whatever you get from it, it’s undeniably a thought-provoking, gentle beauty of a film.

B (; R, scattered harsh profanity, brief violence and blood.)