Stigmata is a tale of two films. One involves a serious criticism of the Catholic Church as an institution that may interfere with true faith. The other is a flashy, MTV-style remake of The Exorcist. Neither one makes much sense, and Stigmata isn’t much of a movie.
Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) is a Catholic priest, dispatched from the Vatican to investigate (and attempt to disprove) miracles. From mysterious images to bleeding statues, the miracles require him to balance his faith with scientific objectivity.
Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette) is a NY hairdresser, who is also an atheist. Needless to say, she is quite distraught when she begins exhibiting stigmata, the wounds of Christ. Kiernan is sent to investigate and finds himself entranced, both by Frankie, and the appearance of what appears to be a genuine miracle.
As he grows attached to Frankie, Kiernan also becomes increasingly concerned when her wounds continue to grow in number. Meanwhile, Cardinal Daniel Houseman (Jonathan Pryce) at the Vatican exerts great pressure on Kiernan to disprove this miracle. Yet, Frankie’s life, and a great religious secret, hang in the balance.
Watching Stigmata, I couldn’t help but think of the familiar line from Beetlejuice, “I’ve seen The Exorcist about a hundred and sixty-seven times, and it keeps getting funnier every single time I see it!” Director Rupert Wainwright apparently shares this same affinity. The issue of stigmata didn’t appear to be interesting enough, and since every movie can use a little dose of demonic possession, Wainwright lavishly pours it over his movie.
Frankie’s stigmata are accompanied by what are apparently demonic attacks and/or possessions. The usual trappings are there. Flames burst all around. Frankie floats in the air, and chants in a low, guttural voice. Pain, death and destruction are everywhere. Yet, somehow the film seems to portray this as a good thing. It’s one angry, hate-filled message of love.
Rupert Wainwright shoots Stigmata like a hybrid of a rabid music video and the post-JFK work of Oliver Stone. It’s effective in short doses, but, stretched to nearly two hours, the technique becomes monotonous. It’s not so much confusing as irritating.
Patricia Arquette is far from subtle in her role as the afflicted woman. She gets to stumble around like a zombie, float in the air, bleed proliferously (in multiple queasy scenes), throw people around like dolls, and shriek contemptuously. Yet, amid all the action, her character is missing. Aside from the fact that she’s an athiestic hairdresser, we learn little about her.
Gabriel Byrne (who strangely moves from playing a priest here, to playing the devil in this Fall’s End of Days) is overly laconic in his priestly role. Even when a taboo romance is hinted at, he stirs few sparks and less emotion.
Stigmata isn’t a very church-friendly movie, though it is far from being anti-religious. Yet, even thick-skinned audiences will discover that Stigmata just isn’t very good.