Lofty concepts such as loss of faith and 20th century belief in religious phenomena receive an interesting but far from exhaustive workout in “The Third Miracle,” a dramatically uneven pic about a Chicago priest investigating a potential case of modern sainthood. Despite convincing performances by a strong cast headed by Ed Harris, Anne Heche and Armin Mueller-Stahl, the elements come together far too fleetingly (and too late) to turn such material into attention-grabbing cinema. Sony Classics will need more than a miracle to vault this beyond niche B.O. at best when releasing Stateside Dec. 29.
In the uneven career of Polish-born helmer Agnieszka Holland, the picture is about on a par with her 1997 Henry James costumer “Washington Square” in terms of overall effectiveness. Mounted in a realistic but well-honed manner, it lacks the sustained atmosphere of her career high points — “The Secret Garden,” “Olivier, Olivier” and “Europa Europa” — but is far from being a clumsy bomb like “Total Eclipse.” It’s also superior to her first English-lingo movie, “To Kill a Priest,” in which she first worked with Harris.
Pic begins with a mystifying five-minute opening sequence, processed in grainy, desaturated color, that shows the inhabitants of the Slovakian village of Bystrica undergoing some kind of religious experience as Allied planes bomb the burg in 1944.
Story then relocates to Chicago 1979, where washed-up priest Frank Shore (Harris) is unearthed in a soup kitchen by friend John Leone (Michael Rispoli) and taken to meet his old boss, Bishop Cahill (Charles Haid), a smooth power player in the Catholic Church.
A professional postulator — a church official who investigates reported miracles — Shore is still smarting from being burned on an earlier case in which he destroyed the faith of an entire community, left his own faith hanging by a thread and earned himself the epithet the Miracle Killer.
Cahill puts him in charge of a preliminary report on the late Helen O’Regan, an Austrian-born immigrant said to have performed miracles. Her statue is said to weep blood each year on the anniversary of her death. A cult is growing around the woman’s memory and is pressingfor official sainthood for her, which the church does not confer readily.
Pic’s first act is constructed raggedly. A lot of information is only partially presented, and some of the characters are introduced in a confusing manner. No clear dramatic plot line emerges. In the mix are Maria (Caterina Scorsone), a teenager who Helen is said to have cured of a terminal illness; Roxane (Heche), Helen’s abandoned, avowedly atheistic daughter who doesn’t want to have anything do with the investigation; and Brother Gregory (Canadian thesp James Gallanders), Shore’s young, thinly drawn assistant.
After almost an hour of slowly clearing its throat, the movie starts to gain dramatic shape when Shore and Roxane ignite a mutual passion, and he decides to recommend to Rome that sainthood be conferred upon Helen after witnessing the statue weep blood one stormy night. Shore’s report leads to an official tribunal , at which he’s violently opposed by the powerful Archbishop Werner (Mueller-Stahl) before new evidence is unearthed in Europe by Brother Gregory.
Mueller-Stahl’s entrance halfway in puts some badly needed oomph into a picture that thus far has been solidly acted but extremely unfocused. Shore is the classic priest who doubts his faith but seems to have difficulty explaining exactly why, and though Harris gives the woolly script (from Richard Vetere’s novel) his best shot, it’s not a strong enough perf to power the movie.
Evincing a natural screen chemistry with Harris, Heche also works hard. But as the pic winds on, her role increasingly looks like a script device on legs — a challenge to Shore’s dwindling faith — rather than a well-rounded character in her own right.
Strongest stuff comes in the final 40 minutes, as the tribunal convenes. The dialogue becomes sharper, and the arguments crystallize into a series of face-offs between Shore and Werner. As the latter, Mueller-Stahl is a formidable presence and draws from Harris — a fine character actor but rarely a magnetic leading man — his best scenes in the picture, as he passionately argues that Helen was “a saint of the people who lived in the ordinary world” and that his own questionable faith should not be an issue in the hearing.
Tech credits are pro, though without any sustained “look” to the movie. Jan Kaczmarek’s score varies between simple atmospherics and soaring choirs; more of a piece is Jerzy Zielinski’s photography, with crisp, wintry exteriors and deeper-hued interiors. Almost the sole contributor to a late-’70s period feel is Heche’s wardrobe, which looks like it was made up of ’60s castoffs. Pic’s title refers to the fact that three certified miracles are required to confer sainthood.