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Friday, February 11, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Memory of `Miracle' quickly fades

Film.com

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Movie review

XXX "The Third Miracle," with Ed Harris, Anne Heche, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Barbara Sukowa. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, from a screenplay by John Romano, based on the novel by Richard Vetere. 119 minutes. Seven Gables. "R" - Restricted for some language, sex-related and violent images, and brief drug use.

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Some films, for good or ill, engrave themselves upon a viewer's brain; others quickly and quietly fade away. Agnieszka Holland's latest film "The Third Miracle," an examination of saintliness and miracles within the context of flawed lives, falls into the latter category. Although quite beautifully filmed and well-acted, its coincidence-ridden script and tendency to dissolve into a clerical courtroom drama turn it into what would be an exceptionally lovely Movie of the Week, but a not-quite-satisfying feature film.

Set in the late '70s (a time when the Vatican required proof of three miracles to canonize a saint), "The Third Miracle" centers on Father Frank Shore, a disillusioned priest known as the "miracle killer" for his work in debunking sainthood claims. Shore, played by Ed Harris (who also portrayed a priest in Holland's 1988 film "To Kill a Priest"), travels to a working-class Chicago neighborhood to investigate miraculous events associated with the death of a devout immigrant women, Helen O'Regan (legendary German actress Barbara Sukowa, seen only in voiceless flashbacks). While there, he becomes entangled - quite literally, if only for a moment - with the dead woman's daughter Roxane (a softly lit Anne Heche), a nonbeliever who's quite certain that her mother was no saint.

In an industry that made $50 million off "Stigmata" last fall (a film in which the central character whined that the miraculous appearance of stigmata interfered with her dating schedule), a thoughtful examination of this subject matter is enough to raise an eyebrow or two. Although John Romano's screenplay does delve into the seemingly obligatory attraction between the priest and the daughter (Shore, apparently, attended the same sexy-priest school as "Stigmata's" Gabriel Byrne), the movie is primarily focused on questions of faith; showing us, matter-of-factly, a statue weeping blood and a little girl cured of lupus. These are miracles, - but how could O'Regan, a woman capable of abandoning her teenage daughter, be responsible for them?

Holland deserves credit for answering the question, rather than just raising it, but the answer requires a fair amount of faith on the audience's part. Too much of the action relies on not-quite-believable coincidence. In an early scene, Shore falls off a library ladder and, by doing so, knocks from the shelf the piece of well-hidden evidence he's been looking for. Another miracle?

But if the screenplay fails, the performances and the look of the film are first-rate. Harris and Heche are well-matched on screen and do natural, passionate work. Harris, in particular, wonderfully demonstrates the vulnerability of the troubled priest, using his slow, mellow-as-old-Scotch voice to such fine effect that he's almost able to do something with a line like "I'm afraid of falling in love with you."

Holland and director of photography Jerzy Zielinski have shot the film with autumn tones, evocatively capturing the dusty, stained-glass light of churches and rectories. We don't quite get a sense of the period, though. Roxane is dressed in funky '70s garb but looks like a trendy late-'90s thrift-store shopper.

Ultimately, while the ideas of "The Third Miracle" are thought-provoking, the specifics of the film are not, fading too quickly into a pleasurable but not quite distinct memory.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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