The Third Miracle (1999)

by Renee Scolaro Rathke


Faith and Redemption

The production notes for The Third Miracle tout it as “a provocative and powerful mystery about a priest who, while investigating the life of a possible American saint, faces temptations and unexpected transformation as he falls in love with her more profane daughter.” There are a lot of promises in that lengthy sentence, and while the film does have its strong points, on the whole it just doesn’t deliver on those promises. After a few surprises and some interesting cinematography, we are left with a well-worn and wholly predictable story of a crisis of faith. Despite its promoters’ description of the plot, there is no transformation in The Third Miracle that is not expected.

The mystery is interesting enough and begins to take shape in the opening scenes: in 1944 Slovakia, a young girl is sleeping in a room full of people, when they are awakened by the horrible sound of bombs being dropped from planes passing overhead. She grabs a small painted statue of the Virgin Mary and begins running in terror from the explosions, along with everyone else. Suddenly, she stops, turns and starts running against the crowd, her father calling and chasing after her. Finally, she reaches the steps of church, and still clinging to the statue, begins praying fervently. A priest in the street and a truckload of German soldiers notice her, especially one wounded soldier whose leg has been amputated. The camera cuts between tight shots of the pleading girl’s face, the top of the church’s bell-tower with planes streaking over it, bombs still dropping, and the astonished faces of the priest, the father, and the soldier. The sound is cut and so, no bombs can be heard exploding any longer.

cover art

The Third Miracle

Director: Agnieszka Holland
Cast: Ed Harris, Anne Heche, Armin Mueller-Stahl

(Sony Pictures Classics)

Cut to 1979. A statue of the Virgin Mary in a Chicago convent cries healing tears of blood on rainy days in November, a miracle attributed to the holiness of Helen O’Regan, a devout Catholic widow who worked at the convent and recently died. Frank Shore (Ed Harris) is the disillusioned priest assigned to investigate the reported miracle and determine whether or not it is legitimate and if Helen is worthy of consideration for sainthood. As a “spiritual detective,” Father Shore has a reputation for debunking apparent miracles and leaving whole towns disillusioned in his wake. He has, in fact, earned the unfortunate nickname “The Miracle Killer.” Apparently, his last investigation (shown in flashback with grainy, hand-held camera effects while he sleeps on a subway train) revealed the healing miracles attributed to the late Father Falcone to be fraudulent. Based on that event, Father Shore has begun to question his own discovery, and has been hiding out for the past eight months as a lay person in a homeless shelter. Now, in the film’s present, the Church seeks him out and assigns him the Helen O’Regan case in the St. Stanislaus parish.

What follows is standard mystery stuff as Father Frank tries to unravel the details of Helen’s life, specifically whether or not she was virtuous and worthy of sainthood. His interviews concerning Helen inevitably lead him to her daughter, Roxanna (Anne Heche), whom Helen abandoned at the age of 16, to devote her life to the Church and live at the convent. Roxanna is a brash, confrontational, irreverent “angry young woman” type and—unsurprisingly and surprisingly—she and Father Frank are instantly attracted to one another, such that his personal crisis intensifies. This is unsurprising because it’s an obvious plot device you can see coming a mile away, and surprising because there is absolutely no chemistry between Heche and Harris.

The relationship between Roxanna and Frank is the weakest part of the film: their love-at-nearly-first-sight romance feels completely forced. Furthermore, poor Heche is cursed with stupid and embarrassing lines. When she and Frank start kissing, groping, and falling to the floor, Roxanna asks breathlessly and half-laughing, “Is this okay? Is this okay?” Perhaps Heche is laughing because she realizes what a ridiculous question that is to be asking a priest with whom you’re about to have sex. No, Roxanna, it’s probably not okay. The question never needs to be answered, however (not verbally at least), because it begins to rain, and Frank rushes away from the real flesh and blood woman in front of him to be with the marble (and blood) statue of the Virgin.

The remainder of the film is still more of what you would expect. The courtroom-type drama of the Vatican tribunal sent to hear Helen’s case is rather run of the mill. Frank, having become a believer in the miracles attributed to Helen, pleads her case to Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the “devil’s advocate” who, despite (or maybe because of?) his high rank in the Church, refuses to advocate Helen’s cause and flatly disavows the miracles. Authority versus subordinate, believer versus skeptic: either way, the conflict couldn’t be more ordinary.

Still, beneath its regular “male crisis of faith” plot line, The Third Miracle offers a subtler, secondary theme, which repeatedly pits mothers and daughters against one another. Helen is posited as “a possible American saint” against Roxanna, described in the production notes as “her more profane daughter.” I wonder at the word choice here, particularly “profane.” Among the dictionary definitions are “not concerned with religion or religious purposes; not holy because unconsecrated, impure, or defiled; serving to debase or defile what is holy; not being among the initiated and not possessing esoteric or expert knowledge.” All of these apply to Roxanna in one way or another, I suppose, depending on your perspective, and the investigation of Helen O’Regan centers around these same concepts. Frank asks if she had an affair with a priest; Archbishop Werner wants to dismiss her candidacy for sainthood based on the fact that she had once been married (i.e., she’s not a virgin) and that she was a mother who abandoned her child.

Roxanna repeatedly finds herself in the position of arguing against her mother’s candidacy and defending her, as a woman who was faced with difficult choices. When Father Frank asks her if Helen had been involved with a priest at St. Stanislaus, Roxanna is infuriated, and accuses Frank—here a stand-in for Church or any other patriarchal institution—of limited vision, only able to see Helen as either a saint or a whore.

The film reinforces this desire (Frank’s, the Church’s) by forcing Roxanna to confront and somehow justify her mother’s memory. The film shows Helen only in flashback scenes as a child in Slovakia and as an adult (played by Barbara Sukowa) on videotape, where she interacts with the children at St. Stani’s. Father Frank watches this videotape repeatedly, especially the last portion, where Helen gazes into the camera for what seems like ages, a sweet ingenuous smile on her face (like the Virgin Mary statue in the convent courtyard). Frank gazes back and returns her smile. In both representations (the one Frank might imagine and the one he can see), Helen is silent.

Roxanna of course, could not be less like these voiceless images of her mother and so the scene where Frank rushes out of Roxanna’s bedroom to see if the statue cries becomes an uncomfortable reinforcement and expansion of her earlier accusation. Rejecting this opposition of saint or whore, Roxanna deliberately and angrily takes on that sexual part of her mother’s identity. Frank’s choice, whether to stay with Roxanna or to run out in the rain to stand beneath the Virgin Mary statue (Helen), so obviously literalizes that too-familiar madonna-whore thing, that it becomes preposterous.

Roxanna’s position in this dichotomy is of course, totally unfair. Given her mother’s association with the Virgin, Roxanna, it seems, must necessarily be the “whore.” While the film does not come right out and condemn her free-spirited lifestyle, its positioning of her against her mother does seem to doom her, within the options it offers. The ambiguity surrounding Roxanna remains troubling: a final scene, “Three Years Later,” shows her on the sidewalk with her new baby, with no other details given, so that viewers can read her as they want or need to. Maybe she’s just an unmarried woman with a baby and those who want to can condemn her for that.

Or maybe, given the film’s refusal to disclose the circumstances of her baby’s birth, she’s more closely aligned with that Virgin Mary statue than her mother is and the baby is the long-awaited “third miracle,” in which case, Roxanna is redeemed. Either way, it’s troubling because the film offers us only two very limited choices in how to read Roxanna and by extension, women generally.

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