1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #7: "Pro Catholic?"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 15, 1999

Over the past month or two, a group of activists named the Catholic League have been getting their share of press by denouncing two movies, Dogma and Stigmata, which they claim contain "anti-Catholic propaganda." While I have no problem whatsoever with their expressing an opinion about these films (their point-of-view, after all, is no less valid than mine), there are two things that concern me. First, the Catholic League is making determinations without having seen the films. They freely admit this, and don't seem the least bit concerned about it. In the case of Dogma, their denunciation has resulted from the reading of a script. For Stigmata, it's based on a trailer (never the wisest manner in which to make any sort of deduction). Secondly, the goal of the Catholic League doesn't merely appear to be to condemn the movie, but to keep it out of theaters altogether. And that crosses a dangerous line that separates freedom of expression from censorship.

At any rate, having written these things, I wonder what the Catholic League will make of the newest motion picture from Polish director Agnieszka Holland, The Third Miracle. Like both Dogma and Stigmata, it ventures fairly deeply into the realm of Catholic theology, but, on this occasion, the Church comes across in a reasonably positive light. Holland is a practicing Catholic, and one of her motivations for making this film was to depict issues of faith and religion in a positive, but still dramatically compelling, manner. For the most part, she has succeeded. The Third Miracle is not without flaws, but it's a lot more interesting and intelligent than ill-conceived pabulum such as TV's "Touched By an Angel." (Anyone who reads my stuff regularly knows that I consider this to be one of the most dramatically bankrupt shows available in prime time.)

Holland doesn't whitewash the Church. This isn't a pro-Catholic cheerleading effort, but it treats the religion, its creeds, processes, and beliefs with fairness and respect. Nothing in The Third Miracle could be viewed by any reasonable person as an attack on the Church. One character, a crusty archbishop with calcified views on doctrine (played by veteran actor Armin Mueller-Stahl), comes across as an antagonist, but he's not a villain in the traditional sense of the word. His opinions, despite being intractable and outdated, are legitimate, and his motivation is not malicious. This is not a gross caricature or a stereotype. There are real people in the Church like this. I know - I have met a few of them.

So what is the movie about? Ostensibly, it's about the investigation of a Catholic priest, Father Frank Morris (Ed Harris in a strong performance), into whether a deeply spiritual, recently departed woman named Helen O'Regan should be recommended for sainthood. Morris, an avowed skeptic, researches the supposed miracles associated with Helen and discovers that the typical causes for doubt do not apply. This is really just the surface story, however. The real meat of The Third Miracle is the way it dissects Frank's faith (or lack thereof). He has fallen into what is theologically referred to as apostasy, and now must find his way back to redemption. By promoting Helen's cause, despite stern opposition from those in power within the Church, Frank discovers the path that may lead to spiritual restoration. Of course, there are temptations along the way, including Helen's estranged daughter, Roxanne (Anne Heche), who is attracted to Frank.

Those who have seen Stigmata will find elements of The Third Miracle to be eerily familiar (especially the opening 15 to 20 minutes). Consider the following... Both movies open with a statue of Mary weeping blood. Both focus on supposed miracles that have no rational explanation. And both feature a priest sent to investigate such occurrences, and who is in the midst of a crisis of faith, as the protagonist. However, despite the many similarities in the initial premise, the two films are very different in tone and intent. Stigmata is an over-the-top thriller, while The Third Miracle is a restrained drama.

Holland, a filmmaker for nearly 20 years, attained international recognition in 1990 at the Toronto International Film Festival, where her Europa, Europa became one of the event's sensations. The success of that film put her on the high road, where she has remained. Her last several efforts -- The Secret Garden, Total Eclipse, Washington Square, and now The Third Miracle -- have been English language movies, offering her greater worldwide exposure.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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