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STIGMATA(director: Rupert Wainwright; screenwriters:Tom Lazarus/Rick Ramage; cinematographer: Jeffrey L. Kimball; editors: Michael R. Miller/Michael J. Duthie; cast: Patricia Arquette (Frankie Paige), Gabriel Byrne (Father Andrew Kiernan), Jonathan Pryce (Cardinal Houseman), Nia Long (Donna, Frankie’s best friend), Patrick Muldoon (Steven), Portia de Rossi (Jennifer), Rade Serbedzija (priest), Jack Donner (Father Paulo Alameida); Runtime: 103; MGM; 1999)
“I don’t see the story as an anti-religious film, as much as I saw it as a challenge to having one way of looking at religion.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Who has the right to investigate the Catholic Church on matters of religion? The implicit answer given by the filmmaker is that the kingdom of God is within you, therefore it is one’s own responsibility to find the truth. Now that doesn’t sound too radical, or does it? The filmmaker makes the claim that the closest we can get to the actual Aramaic words of Jesus comes from the missing Gospel of Thomas discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Nevertheless, the church has not recognized that work and in 1945 declared the work to be a heresy. That is the filmmaker’s version but he’s mistaken, it was not declared heretical: upon further research I discovered that the church only said it was simply non-canonical. As for it being unattainable and suppressed by the church that’s hogwash, I’ve owned a copy of it since the 1970s and anyone can order it in a bookstore.

The real aim of the film becomes one of showing the power struggle between the faithful followers of the canonical and those who oppose them by following the apocryphal as the word of God. The in-fighting within the church has always been of a political nature and it should not be that surprising that the Establishment of the church wishes to preserve its power base and continue to set the standards for its rituals, miracles, and what is to be the true Catholic religion. That the film doesn’t always stick to its aim and gets mired down in unnecessary subplots, is what disappointed me most.

The film uses the supernatural as its storyline. Stigmata are bleedings from the same five wounds received by the crucified Jesus: nails through the wrists and feet, lashes on the back, scratches on the scalp from the crown of thorns, and a spear through the side. That it is only those deeply devoted to Jesus Christ and God who receive this gift, presents a problem to the church when it happens to an atheist–which is what makes the story controversial with the church. St. Francis of Assissi, in the 13th century, was the first to have received these “so called” gifts of God.

Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), who is a trained scientist, investigates and mostly disproves miracles. He is working for the Vatican’s “Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints.” He is sent by his boss, Cardinal Houseman (Jonathan Pryce), to a small town in Brazil to investigate a miracle. As a scientist he can’t find anything phony about the blood tear drops coming out of the Virgin Mary statue, and his report to Cardinal Houseman that this miracle might be authentic is met with displeasure by him.

Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette) is a 23-year-old Pittsburgh hairdresser who is an avowed hedonist and avid partygoer and a confessed atheist, and who has the misfortune of receiving a gift from her vacationing mother of a rosary bead that was stolen from the dead priest (Father Alameida) of the Brazilian miracle church. Father Alameida (Donner) is a translator of the forbidden Thomas Gospel, the one that could supposedly topple the foundation of the Catholic church.

Within hours of touching the rosary beads, Frankie is in the hospital with a deep puncture wound in each wrist — the first of the five stigmata she will endure for the length of the film. The hospital thinks she is suicidal and that the wounds are self-inflicted. She receives the second stigmata, lacerations on her back with the lashes of a whip, while on a subway train. It is witnessed by a priest, who contacts Rome sending them the security video taken from the train. The hospital this time is checking her for epilepsy. But Cardinal Houseman when he hears about this case, assigns Father Kiernan to squelch any talk of the stigmata that the press has reported. The story will now begin to focus on the relationship of the two doubters, Frankie and Father Kiernan, as they both have a chance to re-evaluate what their faith is because of these incidents. It has also become apparent that Frankie has become the messenger for the holy Father Alameida and when possessed speaks in the ancient Aramaic tongue, spilling out the Thomas Gospel she doesn’t even know exists and writing it on the wall of her apartment.

The filmmaker shows that anything about the church can be argued away by them. For instance, when Frankie tells Father Kiernan that she can’t have the stigmata because she is bleeding from her wrists and on all the church statues the blood is coming from the palms of the hand. He responds, by telling her the artists interpreted it that way not realizing that the Crucifixion couldn’t support the weight of a body on the hands. This very revealing statement of how inaccurate all the Christian icons are magnifies the point the filmmaker is making, that even the artists all saw things their own way. To not question the dogmas makes for a very questionable religion.

Director Wainright tries hard to make Stigmata an unconventional film, with a “hip” musical score (Smashing Pumpkins) and a mod style of camera shots and montages. By using many different fanciful camera angles, he allows you to feel the pain of the Crucifixion while we see nails driven into Frankie’s wrists. There are many other disturbing images; such as, broken glass moved by a spiritual wind, doves appearing out of nowhere, ominous bird feathers, and dripping blood. During the sequences in which Frankie receives her wounds, there are a number of quick cuts between her body in agony and a crucified male, and many slow motion shots emphasizing the agony over and over again. The dazzling cinematography even makes the rainy weather and bad traffic jams of Pittsburgh look like an inferno. The film then switches gears and goes to the contrasting opulence of the Vatican and the poverty of the Brazil village, where the faithful flock to the miracle church.

Though there are many films (Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Omen) trying their hand in the supernatural and religious thriller genre, this film tries a somewhat different look (but those demon voices coming out of Frankie, sure sounded like Linda Blair’s possessed voice in the Exorcist). Some of the things the filmmaker tried to do can certainly be questioned as to their effectiveness, especially the over-the-top special effects (especially weak was the fire during the closing scene, it was overwrought with symbolism). What might even be a worst cheapening of the film was the romantic suggestions between the handsome priest and the troubled girl who just wanted to get her life back, and who arrogantly states that she “loves being me.” These were distractions to an already complicated story, a story if it is to be taken seriously has to remain focused on what it was aiming for and not try to tell more of the corruptions in the Catholic church than it could handle.

The romantic hints between the two were fine to a certain extent, it made the point that a priest’s disavowal of sex has its complications just like sex does for ordinary people. But when it went for overkill and tried to show how human the priest was, that he was more affected by saving the girl’s life and giving her love than he was in preserving church dogma, I just thought it became too cheesy. I have no idea where the director was trying to go with that. It just opened the film up for unnecessary criticism, and I wanted this film to succeed without those kind of distractions because I thought it was onto something. What it had to say that was worthwhile, was a rational response to such an authoritarian institution that cannot readily accept challenges from within or without.

I don’t see the story as an anti-religious film, as much as I saw it as a challenge to having one way of looking at religion. In order to challenge the church, there is no doubt that feathers have to be ruffled; but, as I saw the film, the Catholic community was mostly treated with respect and the essential need for religion was never in question. It is only from the film’s ogre, sneeringly played by Jonathan Pryce, that we see a one-dimensional predictable performance. He is evil from the beginning to the end of the film, and how he ends up looking like a strangler is just Hollywood hokum. Wainwright should have had enough convictions in the strong ideas he presented about his belief in a personal religion and should have let the quick lesson he gave on how the church examines miracles, to be enough of a case against the church and let it go at that.

I was mostly impressed with Gabriel Byrne as a priest. His low-key approach to this role was the glue that held the film together and made it possible for non-believers such as me, to believe that there was some faint hope for the church to actually be spiritual in a universal and unbiased sense. I was not particularly moved by Patricia Arquette’s performance, as the young lady who was afraid that she was dying for something she didn’t believe in. I just couldn’t warm up to her sexy dumb hairdresser characterization, it seemed too funky and since she was the brunt of most of the special effects, it all seemed like an Exorcist movie going on for too long and losing any prospective.

Depending on what you are looking for when you view this movie, is what kind of reaction you should have to it. If you view it as a horror movie, then you are in for a big disappointment. This film is more silly than scary, and less funny than risible. But if you look upon it as a challenging religious conspiracy film the way I saw it, a film that examines the past power structure of the church and the power that the church has today, then you might see a film that is more interesting than you would be led to believe by the way it was advertised and by the way some critics felt that it was their duty to defend the “poor” Catholic Church from such an attack. In any case I thought the film was not anti- religious just critical of church abuses, which makes it a disturbing film.

Despite all its faults, the film is still a thinking man’s film. That the church has blindly protested the movie, is of no concern to me. I think, on the contrary, they should be grateful for this film; we seem to be living at a time when a lot of people realize that they can’t look someplace other than to themselves for answers and people are either fleeing from religion or coming back to it to look for deeper answers, or they are looking for completely new religious experiences (drugs, cults, spiritualism, etc.). The filmmakers have not disavowed the institution of the church or belief in a God, but just question its search for truth. The film raised some serious questions that should be answered by the church. By protesting this movie without recognizing that many people don’t want to have religion forced down their throat, leaves the church in a vulnerable position (no one questions their right to protest, just the wisdom of their protest). This film should be seen as an opportunity for the church to see what those who are critical of it are saying and they should not be afraid of the truth, even if it might mean that they have to change.

It is easy to lose track that this film is a serious one, despite its MTV feel. What makes it fascinating, is why the filmmaker thinks the church can be toppled by this new gospel. In the past the church has always been able to be astute by co-opting anything it gets its hands on, for its own benefit. A better film would have veered away from the sensational and stuck to the nuts and bolts of its argument. But with that being said, it is interesting to hear what the director Rupert Wainwright says: “It was our goal to present this story as an unbelievable, yet wholly possible phenomenon;” and, like it or not, that’s what the film does.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”