Rating -

Thriller (US); 1999; Rated R; 115 Minutes

Patricia Arquette: Frankie
Gabriel Byrne: Father Andrew
Tom Hodges: ER Nurse
Nia Long: Donna
Patrick Muldoon: Steven

Produced by Frank Mancuso Jr. and Vikki Williams; Directed by Rupert Wainwright; Screenwritten by Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Catholicism and movies aren't always a good mix. Ever since a priest went into Linda Blair's bedroom over 25 years ago, the church has frontally attacked cinema for associating them with themes around demonic possession, and exploiting the nature of their religion. Boycotts, badmouthing, and other similar acts of reject have accompanied these films' releases. Sometimes they deserved it. Most of the time, however, they didn't. Then why, I ask, did the church fear that Roman Catholicism was being portrayed in exploitative, abasing ways in "Stigmata," especially when the subject is nothing new to their background? Maybe the trailer's MTV style had something to do with it. Either way their attacks are irrelevant in this, a film that tackles its subject in silly but non-degrading ways. Take it as evidence that the church is quick to denounce a film that they obviously haven't seen.

"Stigmata"s premise is easily disorienting, but that doesn't matter, because the film achieves the one thing that no other film has done this year--genuine psychological terror. Filmed in a style that director Rupert Wainwright describes as "skip bleaching," it is told in an atmosphere of low ominous colors, quick camera shots, horrendous hallucinations and fast-paced cerebral attacks, all of which encompass the characters to the point where they fiercely unleash their own demons upon the screen. This, combined with a haunting musical score conducted by Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan, permits us to dismiss a sometimes nonsensical but still interesting plot. The movie's intent is not to discredit Roman Catholicism: it would rather feed imagery to our eyes and send chills down our spine.

Gabriel Byrne stars as a priest named Andrew, who, as appropriately put by a Vatican official, "cannot decide if he's a scientist or a priest." Indeed, we understand his confusion, as in the first scene he visits a church in Brazil fixated on a magnificent miracle--the statue of the Virgin Mary crying tears of blood. It has something to do, I guess, with the death of one of the town's most beloved subjects. But when a kid from the street goes to his coffin, rips away the crucifixion and sells it in town to a tourist, things become tense, as this female buyer sends the cross to her daughter in Pittsburgh.

Her name is Frankie, and she's played by the ambitious, vastly underrated Patricia Arquette. Life as a hairdresser is easy for her--she goes to work, talks to friends, parties all night, and gets with her boyfriend. The daily routine indicates that, in her time, Frankie has nothing to do with the church. Furthermore, she doesn't believe in God. The moment she gets a hold of the crucifix her mother sent her, however, there are some instant manifestations. In her bathtub, pigeons circle her, candlelight looms, and she is pulled underwater by an unseen attacker. Later, at the hospital, a nurse suspects that she is suicidal, after two nail-size holes show up in her wrists, going through both ends.

For those who don't know, this is the first part of the stigmata--an occurrence when the lacerations on the body match those used to kill Jesus Christ. They are indicated in five different areas: the wrists, the ankles, the back, the forehead, and the side. A scene in the movie explains something vital in the whole concept; the image of the crucifixion shows Christ's palms wounded, and not his wrists. Thankfully, Byrne's character steps in and assures us that this is an "inaccuracy" in the vision. After all, his palms cannot support his weight, as his wrists can.

The second attack occurs in a dramatic scene on the subway, when the rail becomes disoriented on the track, and Frankie is slashed on the back by an unseen attacker while holding onto opposite hinges, resembling the crucifix. At this time, a priest watches the attack, and fears the stigmata; later, the Vatican sends Andrew to investigate this incident.

Stigmata incidents are almost never done with all five wounds, but at most, two or three. By the time she encounters the fourth wound, a priest has developed the appropriate explanation--undoubtedly she's being attacked by a force known as a lost gospel. Such an explanation might have generated serious interest in the viewer, but alas there's no other mention of this entity until towards the end credits. And even those don't explain this sudden upbringing in the subject of stigmatic attacks. It's as if the writer made it up as a last resort, to explain these new manifestations.

Narratively, the film makes a few errors. First off, how are we to buy into the fact that Frankie is possessed by a lost saint, when she sounds so much like a demonic entity? Is the entity a transsexual? Is it male? Does it have hormonal imbalances? And furthermore, all of these incidents seem to be happening to someone with the wrong background. Byrne says early on that these attacks only accompany those who are deep in their religious beliefs. Why, then, have the filmmakers decided to revolve them around one who thinks believing in God is dangerous?

Nevertheless, the picture is a daring, effective one. Undoubtedly the visual sights are a big part of its success, but some credit also goes to the actors, who draw strong performances and keep us observing the incarnating supernatural elements. Byrne as a priest confused about his own value system brings to the film a sense of undetermined direction, and Arquette's portrayal as a woman on the verge of breakdown is, to say the least, nerve-wrecking and horrifying, especially when her demons begin speaking in tongues. The movie is no masterpiece, as it might have been, but it is one I feel positive about recommending. At a time when audiences are taking in the overrated and oblique "The Sixth Sense," "Stigmata" offers us the thrills and chills we have been missing for so long.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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