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The Third Miracle

Dramatizing something internal, like a crisis of faith, is a nearly impossible task. Kevin Smith tried to play the situation for laughs in his uneven but very reverential comedy "Dogma."

Director Agnieska Holland and screenwriters John Romano and Richard Vetere (working from Vetere's novel) take a dramatic approach to the topic with "The Third Miracle." Clearly a lot of care and intelligence have gone into the effort and despite the fine work of actors Ed Harris, Anne Heche and Armin Mueller-Stahl, the film unfortunately doesn't coalesce.

Audiences may be disoriented by the opening sequence, shot in grainy color to approximate aged newsreel footage. A small town in central Europe is being bombed during World War II and a young girl carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary kneels in the town square praying. The roar of the airplanes and the whizzing bombs give way to a preternatural quiet as if the child's prayers were answered.

The film jumps 35 years to Chicago where Father Frank Shore (Harris) is living in a flophouse and taking his meals at a soup kitchen. Father Shore was a professional postulator, a priest who investigates reported miracles, who has retreated to this world after uncovering a hoax in a town that destroyed the faith of its residents and called into question his own beliefs.

Now a slick, politically savvy bishop (Charles Haid) is calling for his services. Father Shore is asked to investigate the case for sainthood of one Helen O'Regan (Barbara Sukowa), who reportedly cured a young girl who prayed to her memory.

Not wanting to make the same mistakes as he has in the past, Father Shore moves forward cautiously, tracking down the cured girl, now a runaway and prostitute. Complicating matters for him is the presence of Helen's daughter Roxane (Heche), who says that her mother abandoned her in favor of the church. As Father Shore and Roxane draw closer -- she presents a palpable temptation to this man whose own faith is wavering -- he is also working to champion Helen's cause for sainthood.

Enter the Vatican Emissary Archbishop Werner (Mueller-Stahl), who is to play the role of devil's advocate in challenging the cause of sainthood. Werner and Shore clash, and in those scenes the film really comes alive.

Harris is saddled with the most difficult part, and he does what he can to manifest what is essentially an internalized conflict. (If this were a Shakespearean drama, he would have several soliloquies that would clue the audience in to his feelings and beliefs.)

Heche brings a distinctive energy and eccentricity to the role of the dead woman's agnostic daughter, and she and Harris share a palpable chemistry. But as the focus of the movie shifts to the tribunal hearings, she becomes more window dressing than integral character.

Mueller-Stahl clearly relishes his character, and his scenes with Harris crackle, particularly in several pivotal confrontations. (Director Holland has made reference to off-screen competition between the actors who have decidedly different approaches to acting and that clearly plays out in the work.)

Holland deliberately styled the film to look as if it were made in the period in which it is set, and there are echoes of the work of Lumet and Friedkin in Jerzy Zielinski's cinematography and David J. Siegel's editing. But the story is too slight to warrant such care.

Undoubtedly there will be some in the institution of the Catholic Church who will object to the film, but that's to be expected. Holland and company have tried to offer a compelling tale that is reverential but not overly so.

Yet these good intentions cannot overcome the failings in the script which for long stretches drag. "The Third Miracle" is filled with good intentions and contains some fine acting; it's a pity it is not more wondrous.

* MPAA rating: R, for some language, sex-related and violent images and brief drug use.

"The Third Miracle"

Ed Harris: Father Frank Shore

Anne Heche: Roxane

Armin Mueller-Stahl: Archbishop Werner

Michael Rispoli: John Leone

Charles Haid: Bishop Cahill

An SPC presentation. Director Agnieszka Holland. Screenplay John Romano. Novel Richard Vetere. Producers Steven Haft and Fred Fuchs. Director of photography Jerzy Zielinski. Editor David J. Siegel. Music Jan Kaczmarek. Production designer Robert Devico. Sound Jon Mete. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.