Screenplay : Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Patricia Arquette (Frankie Paige), Gabriel Byrne (Father Andrew Kiernan), Jonathan Pryce (Cardinal Houseman), Nia Long (Donna), Patrick Muldoon (Steven), Portia de Rossi (Jennifer), Mark Adair-Rios (Deacon), Tom Hodges (ER Nurse)
In "Stigmata," Patricia Arquette plays Frankie Paige, a carousing atheist hairdresser who is suddenly afflicted with the titular experience, which involves her physically manifesting the five wounds of Christ--nail holes in the wrists and feet, whip lashes on the back, cuts from the crown of thorns on the scalp, and a spear-inflicted wound in the side. The movie's general idea of suspense is to make us wait for each manifestation; they only come one at a time. So, whenever the movie hits a lull, we can be sure that a hyper-violent moment of bloody stigmata, edited with the machine-gun intensity of Nine Inch Nails music video, isn't far away.
If "Stigmata" had an ounce of spiritual honesty and a some control, it might have been an effective movie. But, as written by Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage and directed by Rupert Wainwright, the movie is a sham, a gratuitous display of frenzied violence and eroticism that pretends to be about something, but is really about nothing more than its own overwhelming style. It has all the religious wallop of Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video--with its faux religious symbolism--stretched out to two hours in length, and all the taste and restraint of Ken Russell at his worst.
Many will compare "Stigmata" to "The Exorcist" (1973), and there are certain similarities to be found. However, as evidenced in the preceding paragraphs, this movie has more in common with music videos than with other movies. Instead of "Stigmata's" visual style adding to its thematic components, what we end up with is an extended music video with some pseudo-heavy theological importance wedged in to give it the appearance of depth.
Director Wainwright, cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball ("True Romance") and editor Steven Kemper ("Face/Off") pour on the stylistic tricks, drowning the movie in heavy color saturation and pointless technical flourishes (including an obsession with double exposure and slo-mo shots of dripping water) that serve no purpose other than to draw attention to themselves. Set to the thumping music of Elia Cmrial and Billy Corgan (lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins), "Stigmata" has the pace and rhythm (not to mention depth) of something that belongs on MTV.
If you can dig through "Stigmata's" visual shenanigans, there is a story to be told involving Frankie and Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), a priest/scientist who is commissioned by the Vatican to investigate miracles (and prove they are hoaxes). Father Andrew is the standard Hollywood Catholic priest; that is, he is appealing only because his Catholicism is constantly compromised, in both his seemingly paradoxical adherence to God and scientific rationality, and in his weak attempts to fend off Frankie's overt sexual advances.
Some may claim that "Stigmata" does have relevant ideas, the most pronounced being its insistence that the Catholic Church has not only been reduced to an irrelevant bureaucracy of scheming politicians posing as priests, but that it was never legitimate in the eyes of God in the first place. It turns out that the stigmata aspect of the movie is intended to lead us to a subplot involving the discovery of a Gospel actually penned by Jesus that would undermine the power and authority of the Catholic Church. The church, of course, cannot let this happen, so we are given the character of Cardinal Houseman (Jonathan Pryce) to embody what the movie sees as the Church's emphasis on power over people, control over spirituality.
The only problem with this grand statement made by "Stigmata" is the fact that Martin Luther got there first. Essentially, "Stigmata" is making a no more complicated argument than that which fueled the founding of Protestantism in the 16th century when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door--namely, the notion that we don't need priests standing between us and God. If there is a honest statement to be made in "Stigmata," it is simply that we can communicate directly with God, and the complex system set up in Catholicism is no longer (and never was) needed.
While that may offend the Catholic Church, it is still an idea worthy of serious exploration that deserves better treatment than it gets here. The movie's theology is contrived and meaningless because the filmmakers seem to think that possession by holy spirits and possession by demons are basically the same thing (if Frankie is possessed by the spirit of a deeply religious priest, why does she turn into a raving, violent assailant who attacks the one person trying to help her?). It is precisely this kind of a clumsy, thoughtless writing that undermines any seriousness "Stigmata" might have had.
©1999 James Kendrick