Film: Unexpected Pleasures

I knew when I started writing this column that I would someday find myself reviewing a film about a priest who falls in love—though I never thought it would be with a lesbian. It is a rule of contemporary film-making that whenever a Catholic priest figures in a movie for more than two minutes, he is required by law to break his vow of chastity or end up on the cutting-room floor.

Such movies are nearly always fat-headed, so when I saw the trailer for Agnieszka Holland’s The Third Miracle, in which Ed Harris, best known to moviegoers for having played John Glenn in The Right Stuff, exchanges clingy glances with Anne Heche, best known to everybody in the world as Ellen DeGeneres’ girlfriend, I gnashed my teeth loudly enough to be heard at the concession stand. I knew I’d have to write about it for Crisis, and that it would be awful. Imagine my surprise, then, when The Third Miracle turned out not only to be a pretty good movie, but one that dares to take its subject matter at face value.

Mind you, it isn’t even close to perfect: Holland fires off more than her fair share of cheap shots at easy targets and lapses not infrequently into sentimental melodrama. But the premise is compelling, and the script (by John Romano and Richard Vetere) never stoops to the unforgivable sin of making light of belief. What’s more, Harris and Heche, though they engage in one high-octane clinch, somehow contrive to keep their clothes on; indeed, their brief near-encounter is so peripheral to the plot that it could have been scissored out with no loss to the film’s overall effect. Too bad it wasn’t, but I promise you won’t run screaming from the theater when it happens.

Frank Shore (Harris) is a priest suffering from a crisis of faith induced by his line of work: He investigates reports of miracles for the Diocese of Chicago, which invariably prove to be hoaxes. It doesn’t help that his boss (Charles Haid, whom TV buffs with long memories will remember as Andy Renko, the southern-fried cop in Hill Street Blues) is a cardinal so worldly that he takes mud baths to improve his complexion and so cynical that he probably reads H.L. Mencken on the sly.

But when the cardinal dispatches his resident gumshoe to check out the late Helen O’Regan (Barbara Sukowa), a virtuous laywoman around whom a cult has sprung up in one of the city’s poorer parishes, it starts to look as if Helen might have been the real thing after all. Assigned to act as her postulator in a sainthood hearing, Shore runs into two roadblocks: Roxanne (Heche), Helen’s hippieish daughter, who is one seriously lapsed Catholic, and Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a Verdi-loving aristocrat tapped to serve as devil’s advocate in the O’Regan case, who boggles and bristles at the notion of a working-class American saint.

You get the idea, right? Fr. Frank, whom we first see lunching in a soup kitchen, is a “priest of the people”—hunky but spiritual—whereas Archbishop Werner, whom we first see at a cocktail party, is the churchly equivalent of the terrorist with a German accent in Die Hard. As for Roxanne, it is a foregone conclusion that she and Frank will fall hard for each other the moment they meet (cute, naturally) and that this will louse things up to no end.

Hackneyed as this plot sounds, it is purified by first-rate acting from all hands, and as Fr. Frank moves closer to pinning down the third miracle needed to win sainthood for Helen, you will find yourself caught up in the parallel drama of his struggle with doubt. Though the script swerves between the twin chasms of silliness and sacrilege, it never plunges over either side, and the relationship between Frank and Roxanne is almost believable. Yes, they fall in love too fast by half, but Harris and Heche breathe dramatic life into a clumsily written scene (I had no idea she is such a good actress). It is compelling when they finally embrace, and even more so when Frank backs away, knowing that he dare not travel one step further down that road.

But here is the biggest surprise of all: Helen really is a vessel of grace, and those who pray to her get results. This aspect of The Third Miracle, unlikely as it may sound, is handled without a trace of condescension (though the sound-track music is way too goopy). As opposed to The End of the Affair, in which the religious angle reeks of phoniness, The Third Miracle shows every sign of having been made by a director prepared to consider the possibility that miracles might actually happen and that some Catholics—nay, even the occasional cardinal—might actually be decent people under the skin. That’s a miracle.

Speaking of surprises, I was positively flummoxed by Errol Morris’s Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., a movie about the Bostonian who designed, built, and, at one time, serviced much of the equipment by which Americans convicted of capital crimes are put to death. Though I knew a bit about Leuchter, having read a couple of books in which he figures, it was quite something to hear him talk about his line of work, which he describes with startling detachment, even relish; he reminded me of no one so much as Wallace Shawn, the squeaky-voiced actor-author-homunculus who specializes in playing neurotic weirdos.

In due course, it emerges that Leuchter has an even weirder part- time job: He is a Holocaust denier. Hired by neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel to gather forensic evidence “proving” that no Jews were exterminated at Auschwitz, he flew to Poland, chipped away cheerfully at the walls of the gas chambers, and brought back samples that contained no traces of Zyklon B. The only thing this proved, of course, was that Leuchter, a self-taught engineer who had previously shown no interest in the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, or anything other than building better electric chairs, knew nothing about chemical analysis.

But he published his findings in a document called “The Leuchter Report” that promptly became a hot item among the strange band of misfits and psychotics known as “Holocaust revisionists.” To no one’s surprise but his own, he found that prison wardens were thereafter unwilling to hire him to polish their electrodes. Now he wanders sadly from one Holocaust-denial convention to the next, his occupation gone with the wind.

Morris tells this strange man’s strange story in his famously quirky style. The effect is rather like a cross between a 60 Minutes segment and an episode of The Twilight Zone—and the results are gripping. In the theater where I saw Mr. Death, it was fascinating to hear the laughter throughout the first half of the film die out as the action moved from Boston to Auschwitz: All at once, everyone in the audience sensed that an invisible line had been crossed and shuddered.

What surprised me, though, was that Morris avoids leaping to the tendentious conclusion that there is some logical connection between Fred Leuchter’s embrace of Holocaust denial and the larger question of the morality of capital punishment. Instead of beating us over the head with Leuchter, Morris simply lets him talk, treating him not with contempt but respectful pity—respectful not of his ideas, which are self-evidently repulsive, but his humanity.

I saw Mr. Death in the company of a very liberal New York Jew, who remarked when it was over that she, too, had been struck by Morris’s fairness and was impressed that he had steered clear of the kind of ham-fisted pointmaking that the film’s reviews had led her to expect. No matter where you stand on the death penalty, you will find in this unnerving documentary much food for thought.

  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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