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
by DAVID KEYES
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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, Cinemaphile.org.
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