Several acclaimed films in theaters now are not afraid to speak of God's presence in the world. He raises the dead in The End of the Affair, heals the sick in The Green Mile, and sends a plague in Magnolia. Belief is hip again in Hollywood, infiltrating even the action genre (End of Days) and raunchy comedies (Dogma). But a quieter release, The Third Miracle, surpasses all of these in depth and quality. While the others use miracles to announce to their characters that God indeed exists, this overlooked drama uses miracles to push characters into relationships with each other. Instead of merely focusing on an individual's decision to place faith in God, The Third Miracle reveals how community is essential for developing and sustaining faith. It's one of few films that train our eyes on the daily living of Christian life.

Community Center

At the story's beginning, Father Frank Shore (Ed Harris) has all but walked away from the priesthood, secluding himself in an anonymous lifestyle. But unlike Dogma, for instance, where the backslidden protagonist is brought back to God's service through an angelic messenger, this highly ordinary story sees Frank tracked down and asked by a fellow clergyman to return to service. Dogma's heroine has to suffer her crisis of faith alone, attending church but talking to no one, but Frank is returned to fellowship. He, too, struggles with belief, but is sustained through this dry period in his faith by fulfilling his role as a priest, by simple obedience to his superiors and fidelity to the flock. In Frank's serving and being served, God makes himself evident through common means.

Frank serves the church as a postulator, a priest who investigates candidates for sainthood and argues the case of those he believes in. The criteria for sainthood involve not only a life of love and service but evidence of God's special touch on the person, in the form of at least three miracles. He's essentially assigned by the church to be a skeptic, trying to disprove as hoaxes what some believe are works of God. Frank's reputation as a "miracle killer" is understandably hard on him; it's what caused him to walk away from the church for a time. While most priests work to inspire belief and focus people's attention on the world we cannot see, Frank's job caused him, most recently, to "destroy the faith of an entire community," as he puts it. He has to examine the world through scientific eyes, even testing for blood type when a statue apparently weeps blood.

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Yet his task is vital, and it reveals another important role of community. While it might be tempting for the church to let people believe anything that furthers their commitment to Christ, a belief in untruth makes the real truth much harder to distinguish. While individual experience is an important way we receive God's guidance, it must always be checked against the Scriptures that Christians, as a body, agree are worth believing in. We also need to learn from others in the church to get a clearer picture of God's direction. It can be painful, as Frank has discovered, to find you've placed faith in untruth, but the alternative is that belief becomes misguided. A unified community, then, requires advocates and skeptics, to ask probing questions and help define what the group holds true.

The Third Miracle introduces us to an unusual candidate for sainthood named Helen O'Regan (Barbara Sukowa). Her case is a longshot at best, since she was a laywoman rather than a nun, was a Chicagoan—only three Americans have been named saints—and has only one known miracle attributed to her. After his last case, in which he discovered ugly secrets about a monk whose cause he believed in, Frank proceeds in this investigation with little expectation. He even hires as a research assistant Brother Gregory (James Gallanders), an angry young monk who had been a friend of the discredited brother—Frank hopes to help the monk understand how difficult his work is. But Frank finds himself surprisingly captivated by Helen the more he reads about her and as he sees her depth of caring on grainy home videos. Or is he more captivated by Helen's daughter, Roxanne (Anne Heche), an atheist who grew up motherless when Helen gave her life in service to the church? These threads all connect back to the importance of living in community: Working with Brother Gregory allows Frank to make a friend out of a former enemy. Frank's devotion to Helen's case leads him to envy the strength she had and inspires him to be better. His temptation to give up his celibacy for Roxanne is really a lure to redirect to a single person the devotion and care he has committed to a whole fellowship of believers. American individualism usually celebrates the individual who breaks ranks, but in this film we are shown that living for others is the measure of a person.

Pass It On

Many faith-centered movies, like The End of the Affair, present a more individualistic journey toward belief. Faith is not fostered through community, but arrives in one person's sudden moment of epiphany when God presents an unmistakable miracle. In Affair, such a miracle divides two lovers, driving Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) to hate God but drawing Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore) into relationship with him. Yet her journey takes place in isolation from others, as if our decisions exist in a vacuum. Certainly this personal decision is a good place to start, since each of us is responsible to choose God for ourselves. But the self-focus places more importance on what God can do for us rather than what he can do through us. Sarah's conversion has so little effect on her actions that we just have to take her word that she believes. She does not choose to serve or to pass on Christ's love to others, but rather rekindles the affair with Bendrix (which does not happen in Graham Greene's novel, incidentally). There's little recognition in this movie that accepting God's grace and forgiveness commits us to extend grace and forgiveness to others. In the novel, at least, the disgruntled Bendrix recognizes the folly of a faith without actions: "If I begin to love God," he says, "I've got to do something about it. … One can't love and do nothing."

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The emphasis on community in The Third Miracle fights against this tendency to see decisions in a vacuum. It is in fellowship that the characters learn to extend love, and to submit their individual wills to the needs of those around them. The film is populated by a disparate group of personalities and temperaments, as if to emphasize that the only way such people could stand each other is because they are bound by common love and purpose. We see the undoubting Father John (Michael Rispoli) failing to understand Frank's crisis of belief, but nevertheless standing beside him and easing his pain. The brash Bishop Cahill (Charles Haid) seems more concerned with church politics than with people's hearts, yet his refusal to coddle Frank's hurting ego is exactly what lifts the priest out of self-pity. The devil's advocate Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is at first contemptuous of Frank's struggles, but the postulator's enthusiasm for Helen's candidacy leads the archbishop to some soul-searching of his own. Brother Gregory, initially angry with Frank, learns to see him as a human being instead of the "miracle killer." In any other movie, these Christians could be seen as stereotypes: naïve, haughty, uncaring, vindictive. But since the movie depicts an entire community of Christians, each member flawed but still loving, it is able to avoid such pigeonholing. It instead reveals the everyday miracle of the church: that through Christ we can overcome our biases and pride, and love those unlike ourselves. While Hollywood's pop spirituality promotes the idea that God really is somewhere "out there," The Third Miracle celebrates the mystery that God somehow inhabits our hearts when we welcome him.

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Steve Lansingh, who writes the weekly Film Forum department for, is editor, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.

Related Elsewhere

The official site for The Third Miracle at Sony Pictures is not only sparse, but it gives away the end of the film.