Movie Review : ‘Stigmata’: A New Generation’s ‘Exorcist’
If there is a lesson to be learned from “Stigmata,” this is it: Never send your daughter a rosary stolen from the corpse of a recently deceased saintly priest who for mysterious reasons had hidden himself away in a tiny village in the hinterlands of Brazil. Don’t even think about it.
Pittsburgh hairdresser Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette) is that unfortunate daughter, a live-for-the-moment, “I love being me” graduate of Claudia’s University of Cosmetology who is partial to tight clothes, big shoes, sparkles on her nails and drinking shots at trendy dance clubs.
But one day, soon after receiving that religious item as a gift from her vacationing mom, something stronger than her usual tequila hits Frankie. Hallucinations plague her, powerful invisible force fields toss her around, and her body exhibits the unmistakable signs of the stigmata, freely bleeding wounds that replicate the injuries inflicted on a crucified Christ.
Stigmata are a very real phenomenon (reference books say that some 300 cases have been attested) and screenwriters Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage and director Rupert Wainwright have used them as a shrewd point of departure for what is essentially a late-'90s MTV version of “The Exorcist,” a half-serious, half-silly piece of business that keeps us involved despite (or maybe because of) being more than a little overdone.
Wainwright, a veteran of high-powered commercial and music video shoots and a member of the You Can’t Have Too Many Candles school of filmmaking, has a tendency to treat directing as a merciless assault on all the senses. Working with cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball, also a commercial vet, his undeniable stylishness and flair cross over into overkill, but it does get our attention. Similarly, “Stigmata’s” story, despite its surreal plotting, has a kernel of genuine interest that is sporadically involving.
It’s that core that has attracted a better-than-average cast for a supernatural thriller, including Arquette and Gabriel Byrne, who plays Father Andrew Kiernan, a scientist and a Jesuit whose job as a Vatican-based member of the Catholic Church’s Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints is to show up at the sites of miracles and throw cold water on the susceptibility of those who believe.
We meet Kiernan in the film’s prologue, arriving at that Brazilian village where the sainted Father Paulo Alameida has just died and where, presumably in the holy man’s memory, his church’s statue of the Virgin Mary can be seen crying tears of certifiably human blood. While Kiernan believes this might just be a genuine miracle, back in the Vatican his superior, the oily Cardinal Daniel Houseman (the estimable Jonathan Pryce), is definitely not interested.
Meanwhile, on the mean streets of Pittsburgh, a terrified Frankie is pulverized by continual stigmatic attacks, which, in addition to everything else, are hell on her haircutting business. Just in case we might be dozing off, these are briskly edited (by Michael R. Miller and Michael J. Duthie) to intense music, and intercut with lightning-bolt flashes of nails pounded into wrists, crowns of thorns thrust onto heads . . . you get the idea.
When Father Kiernan finally gets sent to Pittsburgh to investigate Frankie’s troubles (are you surprised?), the seizures go into high gear, and director Wainright throws his technique into overdrive.
Any visual twist you can think of, including monster close-ups of eyes, lips and raindrops, and the use a color-muting process called “skip bleaching” that gives “Stigmata” a look similar to “Seven’s,” is called into service, not to mention putting Arquette into full eye-rolling Linda Blair levitating possession mode. There’s even some speaking (apparently closely supervised by a UCLA professor of Northwest Semitic Languages) in an ancient Galilee dialect not heard (gasp) since Christ walked the Holy Land’s hot and dusty roads.
While all of this technique has a distancing effect, making us care less rather than more about Frankie’s predicament, it’s at least not boring, and it works well with the great variety of religious art focusing on the Crucifixion that “Stigmata” puts on the screen.
Similarly, while much of the film’s plot has no interest in making sense, once the complete explanation of everything that’s been happening has been presented (by a very effective Rade Sherbedgia), it’s a bit cleverer than anticipated. “Stigmata” is too out of control too often to be much more than a shameless guilty pleasure, but its baroque religious overlay makes us close to believers by the end.
* MPAA rating: R, for intense violent sequences, language and some sexuality. Times guidelines: lightning close-ups of nails pounded into flesh, crowns of thorns pressed onto a forehead.
Patricia Arquette: Frankie Paige
Gabriel Byrne: Father Andrew Kiernan
Jonathan Pryce: Cardinal Daniel Houseman
Nia Long: Donna Chadway
Thomas Kopache: Father Durning
Rade Sherbedgia: Marion Petrocelli
An FGM Entertainment production, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. Director Rupert Wainwright. Producer Frank Mancuso Jr. Screenplay Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage. Cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball. Editors Michael R. Miller, Michael J. Duthie. Costumes Louise Frogley. Music Billy Corgan, Elia Cmiral. Production design Waldemar Kalinowksi. Art director Anthony Stabley. Set decorator Florence Fellman. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
In general release.