Agnieszka Holland (Poland, 1948) cut her teeth as
assistant to Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda, in particular on Man of Marble (1977).
She debuted as director for
Aktorzy Prowincjonalni/ Provincial Actors (1978), Goraczka/ Fever (1980), A Woman Alone/ Kobieta Samotna (1981) and
Przesluchanie/ Interrogation (1982).
In exile during the communist dictatorship she directed
Bittere Ernte/ Angry Harvest (1985),
as well as the English-language films
To Kill a Priest (1988),
the historical drama Europa Europa (1991),
based on Solomon Perel's autobiography (1989),
Olivier Olivier (1992),
The Secret Garden (1993), an adaptation of Frances Burnett's novel "The Secret Garden" (1911),
Total Eclipse (1995), a biopic about the
French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud,
Washington Square (1997), an adaptation of Henry James' novel.
She collaborated to Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue (1994).
The Third Miracle (1999), adapted from a novel by Richard Vetere,
is an odd existential film disguised as an odd detective film.
The protagonist, a priest, is on a mission to reestablish his own faith,
and can do so only after his own personal pilgrimage through the misery
of human life.
It is a fantastic story, full of twists just like a thriller, but much more
profound than a traditional thriller. The credit goes, of course, to the
novelist, not to the filmmaker. But the filmmaker fills every second of
the story with an atmosphere that borders on the apocalyptic. A calm that
indeed seems to come from a god.
During World War II a child, Helena, shocked her townfolks by refusing to
run away from the bombs that the USA planes were dropping on her town.
She ran to the church to pray the Madonna, and the bombs disappeared.
A German soldier stared at the miracle in disbelief.
(From the beginning we know that she was indeed capable of miracles).
Decades later in Chicago a priest, John, visits Frank, a man who lives in a hotel
for tramps and eats at public kitchens run by charities. Frank is also
a priest, but has been living among the poor for eight months now.
The reason is that he debunked an alleged miracle, disappointing the faithftul
who had come to believe in it. That event has caused a crisis in him.
Frank, lured by John back to his job of "miracle killer", is assigned the investigation
of an alleged miracle in a very Catholic neighborhood. The miracle has become
a major event, that draws pilgrims from all over. A Madonna statue is believed
to cry blood in november when it rains. That is the month when a local woman
died: her name was Helen and she worked among the poor.
A girl, Maria, has been cured of an incurable disease when she touched the
Frank visits the church and witnesses the scenes of worship by the faithful
and the sick who come hoping for a miracle. He also witnesses a new miracle:
a young man who could not walk and the following day walks normally.
This time the miracle seems to withstand close scrutiny. Frank behavees as
if he were the one who needed a miracle: he dives into the holy waters like
all the other pilgrims.
Frank interviews Helen's daughter Roxanne, who is bitter about her mother
(her mother abandoned her when she was little to take care of the poor).
Needless to say, Roxanne is initially disgusted by the very idea that
her mother could be considered a saint by anyone.
Frank is a rational priest and, confronted by Roxanne, almost admits that
he doesn't believe in saints.
The next step in his investigation is finding Maria, now a teenager.
Her mother tells him
that she has become a teenage prostitute and drug addict. Her own mother
says "God wasted a miracle". Nonetheless Frank ventures into a really bad
neighborhood looking for her.
As he tells a monk friend, this is a chance to compensate for the damage
he caused to the previous community. This time he senses that the miracle
could be real. And he desperately wants it to be real, so that he can forgive
himself for destroying the faith of an entire neighborhood in the previous
Maria eventually shows up in a church. Frank wants to hear that she prayed
Helen for a miracle and she got one. Instead, Maria tells him that she prayed
Helen to die.
Frank gets drunk and then visits John, confessing that he has lost his faith.
He is struggling to get it back.
Roxanne gets arrested for arguing with a police officer, but luckily Frank
is at the police station when they bring her in and gets her released. It turns
out that Frank's father was a police officer and Frank knows everybody at the
station. Released, she falls in love with Frank, and they almost make love.
Frank resists the temptation at the last minute.
On a rainy day Frank witnesses the miracle. He tastes the red tears coming down
from the statue's eyes and they taste like blood. Convinced that this is
indeed a miracle, he can't wait to tell the tribunal sent by the Vatican,
but there he hits the snag of bureaucracy. The leading archibishop, from
Germany, is ideologically opposed to miracles, and the procedure is
Called by the police, Frank rushes to Maria's apartment: her boyfriend is
dead, and Maria is dying at the hospital of a drug overdose.
Frank tells Roxanne that he has decided to recommend her mother for sainthood.
She is hurt, insulted that the person who abandoned her may be declared a saint.
(Was Frank attracted to her because of her beauty or because he sees her
as the daughter of a saint?)
Maria is dying at the hospital. We see her reminiscence of how Helen used to
play with her, and how Maria went to the statue and saw it cry blood.
The tribunal meets to discuss Frank's report. The German archbishop is
stubbornly opposed to sainthood: he just doesn't see sainthood in the
private life of this housewife. Frank omits to tell the tribunal that this
woman actually abandoned a daughter. He only focuses on the miracle.
The archbishop, far from being only a contemptious bigot, sees through
Frank's soul. He sees that Frank "believes in nothing" but nonetheless will
continue to fight for this miracle. John tries in vain to refrain Frank's
bitter rebukes of the archbishop's accusations.
Interestingly, the archibishop admits that he once saw a miracle himself,
but doesn't say which one.
Frank and his monk friend are now onto something new. A plane that was
taking off has made a statuette fall, and Frank has read in the back that
it was made in Slovakia. Everybody always thought that Helen was from Austria,
and that the story of the bombing was just a fairy tale told by old folks.
Now Frank believes that Helen was from Slovakia and that one might find out
the truth about that legend in her real hometown.
Frank is also beginning to understand what Roxannes never understood about
her mother: that her mother felt she had a higher duty and thus abandoned
her daughter to work for the poor. Roxanne initially refuses to attend the
tribunal on the day when they are to discuss this episode, but then shows
up. Asked what her mother said when she abandoned her, all Roxanne can
remember is "I owe God".
Frank's monk friend calls from Slovakia. He has found the village and
everybody knows the story of how Helen/Helena stopped the bombs.
Unfortunately, Slovakia is under communist rule and people are afraid
even to go to church, let alone testifying on a case of sainthood.
Maria is in a irreversible coma at the hospital. The doctors decide to remove
the tube that keeps her alive. Frank witnesses the event and whispers to
the mother "God doesn't waste miracles" before returning to the tribunal.
The arrogant archbishop uses Maria herself to weakend the cause of Helen:
Maria was a prostitute and died of an overdose, not exactly the kind of
miracle one expects from God. Frank loses his temper, but is interrupted
when his friend asks everybody to rush and witness a new mirale: Maria has
de facto resurrected.
The evidence that something out of the ordinary is happening is now
overwhelming, but the German archbishop has not changed his mind: first of
all it takes three miracles and these two only count as one because they
involve the same person (Maria), and secondly he doubts the messenger's faith,
Unable to lie,
Frank does admit that God has given him doubts, but passionately argues that
Helen's sainthood has nothing to do with the current weakness of his faith.
Unfortunately, the monk friend fails to find Slovakian witnesses willing
to prove that there was indeed a previous miracle, as required by the Church.
Even if he cannot prove it, Frank tells the tribunal what he believes happened.
As he starts telling the story of Helena in Slovakia, the German archbishop
faints. The meeting is adjourned until he recovers. That night the archbishop
calls Frank to his apartment and confesses that he was in that village when
the miracle happened. He was the German soldier who stared at the sky in the
first scene. He saw the bombs turn into a flock of birds.
Ten years later Frank is a priest in a neighborhood church and Roxanne is
married with a child in the same neighborhood. Helen is still in line for
sainthood: they need a third one. But maybe the third one is Frank, who
found his faith again thanks to Helen.
Shot in the Heart (2001)
Julie Walking Home (2002)
Copying Beethoven (2006) is a mediocre biopic.
In Darkness (2011)
Burning Bush (2013)
Spoor (2017) is one of her best.
Mr Jones (2019)
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