Film director Agnieszka Holland is the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, but she was raised in communist Poland in an atmosphere of state-imposed atheism. If those bona fides don't qualify her to make a two-hour movie about the timeless tug of war between faith and reason, whose would? Surely she understands better than most that humankind's ancient urge to believe -- whether in miracles, five-year plans for increased wheat production or national liberation movements -- is uncommonly stubborn but always under siege. The Nazis and the Stalinists both savaged this filmmaker's homeland, after all. What would she develop from that if not nagging questions about the joys and oppressions of belief?
Certainly, the film for which Holland is best known in this country, 1991's Europa, Europa, engaged such issues: It is the true story of a Jewish boy, mistaken for an Aryan, who survives the war by joining a Hitler youth group.
The Third Miracle, which Holland adapted from a soul-searching novel by a lapsed American Catholic named Richard Vetere, can be interpreted as a curious antique of a movie, given the rampant irony and cynicism of our time. Set in 1979 in a tough Chicago neighborhood, it's the story of a youngish priest, Father Frank Shore (Apollo 13's Ed Harris), who is assigned by his superiors to investigate the life of a local woman who is being considered for sainthood. In the courtyard at gray, run-down St. Stanislaus, a statue of the Virgin Mary is said to be "crying" tears of human blood, and the parishioners are convinced that the phenomenon is a heavenly tribute to the works of the late Helen Oregan, a Polish immigrant who devoted her life to the church and, they say, who once cured a child of a fatal disease. Mother Church's "postulator," Father Frank, is a kind of spiritual detective, looking for evidence of Helen's good works and clues to miracles she may have performed (in 1979, Rome required three of them, firmly documented), as well as any missteps that might disqualify her. Part theological mystery, part courtroom drama, Miracle sometimes has about it the tone of a terminally sincere late-night bull session in a college dormitory -- a generation or two ago. Is there a God? Is he present in the world? If so, how does he show himself? It's a strangely dated form of discourse for the year 2000.
Or is it? Setting aside the totalitarian instincts of the Christian Right, religious faith, if not attendance at houses of worship, continues to rise in this country. A study last year at the University of Arizona concluded that belief in the afterlife is increasing. A high-rated TV show endorses the existence of angels, and one of the big movie hits of 1999, The Sixth Sense, concerns a boy who talks to the dead and tries to give them redemption. Eighty percent of Americans say they believe in God. Everybody else seems to be worshiping Saint Elvis or Captain Kirk, or gazing at crystals -- varieties of religious experience designed for the age of pop, but varieties nonetheless.
At second look, then, the drama of a priest looking into the mysteries of a virtuous life doesn't seem so bizarre. It becomes even less so after novelist Vetere, screenwriter John Romano and director Holland get through modernizing their protagonist. Father Frank not only has street smarts (he holds his own with punks and junkies), but he's also afflicted with his own major-league crisis of faith, which comes into full view the minute he lays eyes on the fallen-away daughter of the woman he's investigating. Roxanne Oregan (Anne Heche) is an unhinged redhead who proves to be Frank's double, in a way: Her mother, who as a girl may also have literally stopped bombs from falling on her native village, might be a saint to the worshipers at St. Stanny's -- but her devotion left no time for her daughter. Roxanne's bitterness is mixed with bewilderment, her faith in all things shaken. That she instantly becomes the occasion of sin, stirring lust in a priest who no longer knows what to believe, is almost inevitable.
But Miracle is no more another story about a corrupt priest than it is a horror movie in the manner of The Exorcist. Instead, Holland and Company seem to have taken their cues from the peerless British novelist Graham Greene -- whose great subject, it can be argued, is the possibility of faith in a world that conspires to destroy it. Said another way, Holland keeps Harris's complex, subtly shaded Father Frank on the high road, despite his flaws. The Legion of Decency crowd is unlikely to find nearly as much fault with this somber and serious movie as they did with, say, the scandalous Priest, last year's irreverent Dogma or even Stigmata, in which Patricia Arquette discovered crucifixion scars on her body after a supernatural experience.
"God gave me doubts," Father Frank declares at last, "but he also gave me Helen." And in that may lie the most immediate "miracle" of the piece. Happily, the movie also gives us a politically connected Chicago archbishop who's the picture of worldly ambition and, more interesting still, an imperious, snobbish German archbishop (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who has reasons of his own for opposing Helen Oregan's cause. The confrontations, in a paneled conference room, between this formidable European scholar and Harris's hip street priest are a pleasure to watch and listen to -- the vintage dormitory argument raised to the level of high art.
The Third Miracle is art, too, a sustained act of spiritual inquiry that, at its best, stirs the soul. For now, go ahead and skip church and hit the art house instead.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.