The Catholic Church has become a fashionable target for contemporary filmmakers, judging by the number of movies on the subject released during the past six months. Seven recent films — Dogma, Stigmata, The Omega Code, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Angela's Ashes, The End of the Affair and now The Third Miracle (all reviewed by the Register) — have in different ways criticized the Church. Some have attacked the hierarchy, others its doctrines or priests. A few have made fun of all three.

This negative stereotyping is diametrically opposite to the more positive perspective found in movies the last time the Catholic faith was a hot Hollywood topic. In the 1940s, films like Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's presented the Church as an example of everything that's good about our culture. While the current films haven't been as financially successful as these classics, two of the more exploitative entries, Dogma and Stigmata, will probably turn a profit.

What's unexpected for our rational-ist, high-tech era is that most of the recent releases accept the Church's belief in miracles. It's the Catholic faith's insistence on transcendent moral values that present-day movie-makers dislike. They seem to be hungry for a spiritual dimension in their lives without the annoying restraints orthodox Christianity places on behavior and desires.

Like The End of the Affair, The Third Miracle is not anti-Catholic. Both movies are the work of serious filmmakers. They treat their characters' crises of conscience and belief with respect. But, sadly, The Third Miracle recycles many of the same crude caricatures found in the anti-Catholic films, which has the effect of seriously weakening its drama and originality.

The plot is surprisingly similar to the trashy Stigmata: A troubled priest who investigates miracles for the Church clashes with a venal Vatican bureaucrat; at the same time he's tempted by a beautiful woman connected to the case.

But there the comparisons end. Despite certain clichés, The Third Miracle's director, Anieszka Holland (Europa, Europa), evokes both the mystery of faith and the gritty, urban environment of the main story with honesty and passion.

The movie, based on Thomas Vetere's novel of the same name, begins in Byrstica, Slovakia, in 1944 during an Allied bombing raid on German factories there. Everyone is fleeing the center of town for safety. But a young gypsy girl grabs a small statue of the Madonna from her home and runs in the other direction, toward a cathedral. She stops and kneels in prayer before another statue of our Lady on the building's facade. A priest tries to persuade her to leave, but she refuses.

Today's moviemakers seem hungry for a spirituality that demands no restraints on desire.

Suddenly, the scene goes silent. Something momentous is happening, but we don't know what. A wounded Nazi soldier stranded nearby watches the gypsy girl intently.

The action moves forward to Chicago in 1979 and the focus turns to Father Frank Shore (Ed Harris), who's dropped out of the Church, living among the poor and working at a soup kitchen. In a series of flashbacks, we learn he used to be a postulator, charged by his local bishop and the Vatican with investigating possible candidates for sainthood. He must determine the truth of alleged miracles and research whether the candidate had lived with “heroic virtue.” At the time the novel was written, proof of three miracles was required for canonization (hence the title).

We see a shorthand version of Shore's most recent investigation in which he refutes the alleged miracles of a local priest. In Shore's mind, his findings have a negative effect, “destroying the faith of an entire community.” Wracked by guilt, he loses his sense of vocation. “How does faith get away from you?” he wonders.

Shore is drafted back into action as postulator by Bishop Cahill (William Haid), a political operator who prefers schmoozing and deal making to spiritual leadership. He also likes to pepper his speech with profanities. The case involves Helen O'regan (Barbara Sukowa), a parish worker born in Central Europe who was known for her selfless dedication to disadvantaged children. After her death, the statue of the Madonna near her church began to cry tears of blood which are said to have healing powers. Helen herself is alleged to have cured a young girl of terminal lupus.

Shore uncovers evidence in support of Helen's cause, which brings him into conflict with Cahill. The Vatican sends a bullying Austrian-born official, Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), to scrutinize the postulator's findings. Shore's belief in Helen's sanctity is tainted in Werner's eyes when he learns the priest has fallen in love with the woman's angry daughter, Roxanna (Anne Heche).

The movie ties all these plot twists to the hallucinatory opening sequence in a convincing and suspenseful manner.

Which raises the question: Why is it that even today's most gifted film-makers seem incapable of conceiving of the Church hierarchy as anything other than arrogant, repressive tyrants?

And why are nearly all contemporary movie priests depicted as miserable because of their vows of celibacy? Surely, this reflects their writers' and directors'attitudes about sex more than reality.

This tired stereotyping of the clergy dilutes The Third Miracle's dramatic impact, making its otherwise intelligent treatment of faith and miracles ring rather hollow.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.