The Third Miracle 

A detective story doesn't have to be about discovering who killed the rich socialite or who framed the corrupt senator. Occasionally, it can be about a search for a larger truth. The Third Miracle is a film rife with religious ideology but also steeped in the atmosphere of a classic detective novel.

Frank (Ed Harris) is a postulator for the Roman Catholic Church -- essentially a priest who investigates miracles and those who performed them so he can verify the person's worthiness for sainthood. Frank's last case, in which he discredited a venerable priest -- and with it the faith of that man's community -- left him an alcoholic loner and earned him the nickname of "the miracle-killer."

When reports say that a statue of the Virgin Mary at a working-class Chicago parish is weeping blood, a sign that a recently deceased immigrant named Helen who worked there might be a saint, the Vatican pulls Frank out of semiretirement to investigate. (In 1979, the year in which the film is set, the church required that three miracles be documented before the subject is eligible for sainthood.) Complicating matters is Helen's daughter Roxane (Anne Heche), who believes her mother to be anything but a saint, having abandoned her while Roxane was a child. Although Roxane thinks Frank's mission is silly, she takes a liking to him, and he begins to reciprocate the affection.

Also adding to Frank's demanding task is Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a German-born clergyman Rome sent to argue against the case for Helen's sainthood. Part of the archbishop's reasoning stems from his disdain at the thought of America producing someone righteous enough to be so designated. How he first arrived at this attitude helps unlock some of the film's many secrets.

Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Washington Square) manages to tackle issues of religion, faith, and commitment simultaneously -- any of which if handled improperly could have derailed the film. Like last year's Dogma, the script (by John Romano and Richard Vetere, based on the novel by Vetere) seems to find its belief in Catholicism fortified because it is so questioning and critical of the religion's theology.

The filmmakers' prayers certainly were answered in regards to casting. Harris (an Oscar nominee for The Truman Show) brings a welcome spin to the world-weary priest character. Almost like a classic film-noir hero, Harris radiates a down-to-earth confidence that makes his character vulnerable and formidable.

Scenes between Harris and Heche are the film's emotional center. "Is this where I'm supposed to say, 'You don't look like a priest'?" the brazen Roxane asks Frank during their introduction. A particular scene between the two at her mother's grave finds the right balance between everyday conversation and underlying flirtation.

Heche continues to prove herself a terrific actress, even though her tabloid coupling with Ellen DeGeneres sometimes threatens to overshadow her genuine ability. Despite strong showings in recent films such as Return to Paradise, Heche scores her most alluring and convincing role in The Third Miracle. When she asks Frank, "Are you going to spend your whole life caring more for a dead woman than a live one?" it's easy to empathize with a man who has found one of God's creations more enticing than God.

Although the film is set in 1979, it never looks or feels like the '70s. The time period seems to mainly be a contrivance to make the film's grainy World War II flashbacks match up with the ages of those involved. It's also hard to pinpoint what convinces the skeptical Frank to champion his subject for sainthood, considering that his past has demonstrated that a miracle is not enough to sway him.

Since the film is structured like a mystery, it is only fitting that Holland leaves things ambiguous as to what the titular third miracle refers to. It could be faith, or the miracle of life, or perhaps there is no actual final phenomenon. Given the difficulties of making a movie that can juggle themes of religion and romance while wrapped in an unconventional detective story, Holland has performed a minor miracle herself. (R) Rating: 8

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