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Oh God(s)

Agnieszka Holland came to prominence as a screenwriter, but she didn’t write The Third Miracle, her most accomplished film since 1993’s The Secret Garden. She didn’t have to. The script, adapted from Richard Vetere’s novel by TV writer John Romano, suits remarkably well her longstanding themes: secrets and lies, the riddle of identity, the possibility of grace in the wake of Hitler and Stalin. Still, this evocative, skillful movie might have been more satisfying if the director had shaped it a bit more in her own image.

The film’s most problematic aspect, however, is something over which Holland surely had no control. How could she have imagined that Vetere’s sober scenario would so closely match that of a recent piece of special-effects mumbo-jumbo, Stigmata? Both movies feature a doubting priest who’s summoned to investigate an alleged miracle in a Rust Belt city, and both priests are tempted by a nonbelieving young woman. In The Third Miracle, the priest is Frank Shore (Ed Harris), as intense as, but less dapper than, Stigmata’s Gabriel Byrne, and the woman is Roxanna O’Regan (Anne Heche), more believable than Stigmata’s Patricia Arquette. Of course, Roxanna is merely the daughter of a putative saint—an easier role than that of a party girl suddenly inflicted with the wounds of Christ.

Frank was the Diocese of Chicago’s “best postulator,” the man who so effectively demolished the cult around a late local priest that he came to be called “the Miracle Killer.” No longer able to abide that role, Frank has disappeared, only to be tracked down in his homeless-shelter refuge by a colleague. The bishop needs Frank’s help in the case of Helen O’Regan (Barbara Sukowa), who abandoned Roxanna when the girl was 16 to move into a convent. Since Helen’s death, a statue of the Virgin has been crying tears of blood, and the tears have supposedly cured an abused girl of terminal lupus. These are the sorts of things that infuriate Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a supercilious German who’s convinced that in America the miracles are as substandard as the cuisine.

Although its themes are mostly theological, The Third Miracle is a thriller with a bit of courtroom drama: Frank must investigate Helen’s supposed miracles and then make the case to a panel that includes the cartoonish Werner as the Vatican’s envoy. In the process, Frank measures his own faith against Helen’s—and tests it with his attraction to her daughter. We already know that this story is bigger than that, however, because we’ve seen the prologue, which transpires in Slovakia in 1944, when Helen was a little girl. Thus Helen’s presumed miracles exist in the shadow of one of the greatest crimes of human history, one that makes the saving of any one life seem puny and even futile.

The film was shot mostly in Toronto with an ensemble cast that recalls Holland’s European career—Mueller-Stahl appeared in the director’s Angry Harvest, and he and Sukowa last did battle in Fassbinder’s Lola—and a variety of film stocks whose feel ranges from professional documentary to on-the-fly wartime footage. The light is natural rather than celestial, giving the tale a real-world feel even when the script puts its thumb on heaven’s side of the scales.

Holland was born in Poland in 1948, the daughter of a Jewish father and Catholic mother. Although she was raised without religion, such a background would certainly explain an interest in miracles—Poland’s Catholic Church has a strong mystical tradition—as well as a refusal to believe in them. What’s surprising about The Third Miracle is that it doesn’t invoke another concern of Holland’s early career: the imminent collapse of Communism, even when Frank sends an investigator to Slovakia to learn more about Helen’s childhood. I confess that, for most of the film’s running time, I was expecting the third miracle to be political rather than religious.

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For the sin of having romanticized morbid adolescent romanticism in Titanic, the penance is playing a callow youth whose immaturity is potentially disastrous. That’s what Leo does in The Beach, but his co-star is ahead of him. In Hideous Kinky, Kate Winslet was a young mother in early-’70s Morocco who risked her children in pursuit of a vague notion of Sufi enlightenment; now she’s followed that accomplishment with a film that begins on similar terrain. Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke finds Winslet—as Aussie tourist Ruth Barron—in India, where she experiences mystic mindlock with a guru. Having found paradise, Ruth has no interest in ever returning to Oz.

Back in an extravagantly tacky Sydney suburb, however, Ruth’s family has other ideas. Ruth’s parents, siblings, and sister-in-law are shallow, dim-witted grotesques who recall Campion’s breakthrough film, Sweetie, but they somehow manage to get sufficiently organized to formulate a plan to lure Ruth back home. Her mother, Miriam (Julie Hamilton), is dispatched to India, where she misinforms Ruth that her father is dying and wants to see her one last time. Ruth refuses to leave India but relents after her mother—an asthmatic from the country with the world’s highest asthma rate—has an attack and collapses in a typically teeming Indian alley.

Observing this part of Ruth’s spiritual journey is mostly fun, even if Campion’s characterization of the Barron family makes Sweetie look subtle. The director, who wrote the script with her sister, Anna Campion, doesn’t take anything seriously: affluence or enlightenment, family or individuality, Australia or India. She mocks it all with a playful kitschiness, borrowing theme songs for both Ruth and her eventual antagonist from no less trashy an icon than Neil Diamond.

Those filmgoers whose hearts sank during the latter part of The Piano, however, know that Campion does take one thing seriously: the transformative power of a sexual encounter between male worldliness and female innocence. In the second part of Holy Smoke, Ruth is left alone in an outback outpost with P.J. Waters, a swaggering American cult deprogrammer who is, inevitably, played by Harvey Keitel. P.J. invokes his superior knowledge and experience; Ruth demonstrates her sexual allure. In a series of scenes that are alternately silly and inexplicable, P.J. breaks all the rules of deprogramming—a subject in which the Campions clearly have no actual interest—and Ruth violates a few precepts of ladylike behavior. This psychosexual confrontation is meant to be momentous, although Campion must have realized that some viewers wouldn’t be convinced. The film ends with an epilogue in which one of the central players insists, “Something really did happen, didn’t it?”

Well, no, not really. The movie’s second half ostentatiously busts some taboos, but neither the narrative nor the characters manage to make the events anything more than a freak show decorated by Winslet’s full-frontal nudity. The film is such a mess that it’s tempting to blame it on co-writer Anna Campion, whose Loaded was thoroughly rotten. But, in fact, Holy Smoke falls apart in the manner of most of Jane Campion’s films. As a satirist, she shows considerable flair, but in her search for something more profound she seems as lost as Ruth Barron.

The gods are angry in Titus, but they have nothing on Anthony Hopkins. As the title character in writer-director Julie Taymor’s 160-minute adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Hopkins moans, howls, and cackles. (The actor himself has said that his performance combines Hannibal Lecter and King Lear.) Taymor, who’s best known for staging the Broadway version of The Lion King, here takes the Insane Clown Posse approach to the Bard, and none of her cast members are more willing to spray the audience with Faygo blood-orange soda than Hopkins.

To be fair to both Taymor and Hopkins, Titus Andronicus is a problematic play, which more than one commentator has deemed Shakespeare’s worst. It’s a pageant of brutality that incorporates just about every cruel set piece from classical myth, including the one where a parent—here Jessica Lange’s Tamora, Queen of the Visigoths—is fed a meal made from the flesh of his or her offspring. Tongues are severed, arms are cut off, and human entrails are offered to the “sacrificing fire” to please both Rome’s gods and the souls of the soldiers who died fighting for the state.

All this histrionic bother begins with the sacrificial action. Having defeated the Goths at great cost, Titus brings Tamora and her sons to Rome, where he gives up one of the sons to the gods. Noble Titus then turns down the job of emperor, supporting instead Saturninus (Alan Cumming, still in character from Eyes Wide Shut), who, Titus expects, will marry his daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser). After Lavinia’s true intended carries her off, however, Saturninus chooses Tamora, who thus has the freedom to plot her revenge on Titus with her utterly malicious Moorish lover, Aaron (Harry Lennix), and her remaining sons, Demetrius and Chiron (Matthew Rhys and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the latter still in costume from Velvet Goldmine). Demetrius and Chiron brutalize Lavinia, driving Titus to the play’s final act of Grand Guignol vengeance.

Taymor’s approach to this scenario—Theater of Cruelty 300 years before Artaud wrote its manifesto—is both audacious and familiar. Some of Titus is outfitted in the same ’30s fascist regalia used in 1995’s Richard III, but Taymor combines ancient and modern in the same composition. Her Roman centurions employ both horses and motorcycles, and her villains enjoy Roman-style orgies but also video games, jazz, and techno. The effect of all this anachronistic bric-a-brac parallels that of the director’s brazen theatricality, flashy camera angles, and pointedly artificial special effects: attention-getting but ultimately pointless.

Titus actually has a point, one that it makes by retaining the prologue of Taymor’s 1994 off-Broadway production of the same work: A little boy plays with toy soldiers until his frenzy yields a time-warping explosion that propels him back to the Coliseum in Rome’s imperial era. Boys will be boys, but their casual cruelties have vast implications, leading to the annihilation of families and even nations. According to the film’s supporters, this has something to do with Rwanda and Bosnia, and in the broadest sense that’s true. Still, Titus’ opulent desperation is more aesthetic than political. The film doesn’t want to save the world so much as it wants to salvage a piece of Shakespearian flotsam. CP