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movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Stigmata

Starring: Patricia Arquette, Jonathan Pryce
Director: Rupert Wainwright
Rated: R
RunTime: 102 Minutes
Release Date: September 1999
Genres: Drama, Horror, Religion, Thriller

*Also starring: Gabriel Byrne, Nia Long, Patrick Muldoon, Jack Donner

Review by Dustin Putman
1½ stars out of 4

Not knowing any better, I would have guessed that "Stigmata," the new religious-themed possession tale, is just a fancy name for "Exorcist IV," and I may be right. Let's look at the evidence: a young woman possessed; a priest struggling with his own beliefs and feelings; mysteriously-inflicted slash marks; a climactic possession sequence; and pea soup. Well, okay, pea soup maybe be an exaggeration, but it might as well have been included, for, as directed by Rupert Wainwright, the film's only major differences to the classic 1973 horror film, "The Exorcist," are a quick-cut style for those whose attention span has been depleted by MTV, and a disappointing lack of any believable human story. On second thought, perhaps "Stigmata" is actually "Beyond the Door IV," in disguise.

In a prologue set in a dusty, Catholic region of Brazil, an American woman purchases a rosary that once belonged to Father Paulo Alameida (Jack Donner), who is now lying in a coffin in a nearby church, the statue of Mary beside him bleeding human blood from its eyes. Switch to the city of Pittsburgh, 23-year-old Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette), a talented beautician who, at night, likes to go club (and man)-hopping with her best friend (Nia Long), receives a gift from her mother that has arrived at her front door. Among the small presents is the rosary she bought in Brazil, and soon after, Frankie is attacked in her bath tub by an unknown force that causes her wrists to bleed straight through, as if large pegs had been nailed into her. At the hospital, the wounds are suspected to be self-inflicted, despite Frankie's argument that she loves herself and has no stress ("I cut hair!"). Before long, she also is tortured with slash marks across her body while on an out-of-control subway cart, thorn cuts on her face, and occasionally is being possessed and forced to recite the Aramaic language, which hasn't been used in thousands of years. Enter Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), a part priest/part scientist from the Vatican, who travels to Pittsburgh to try and help Frankie. His guess is that she has the curse of the stigmata, the inflicted wounds of christ, and since she has had four of the five major wounds, she is in grave danger of dying if it occurs again. There's just one catch: Stigmatics are always highly religious individuals, while Frankie is an atheist who is quickly starting to believe in otherwordly forces.

"Stigmata" is a relentless and thoroughly unpleasant horror film that is so fast-paced and stylized, with loud alternative music and quick cuts popping up at every chance it gets, that the whole experience of watching it gradually became an ordeal. In one scene after the next, we watch Frankie being graphically mutilated by something we cannot see, and while it sometimes is powerful and unsettling, that mostly results from all of the bloodletting. In between, there are painfully few exposition scenes in which we get to know the characters because, every time some dialogue enters in, Frankie abruptly is pierced through her feet or various other body parts. A major flaw this is, because in order to care about this woman who is in a dire situation in which any moment could be her last, we have to be able to sympathize with her plight. According to screenwriters Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage, their idea of satisfying character development is showing Frankie smoking and drinking at clubs, and then bringing men home with her. Patricia Arquette, who, at 31, admittedly looks a little long in the tooth to be playing a 23-year-old, tries her best in an unlikable role that helps none in displaying her considerable, but usually wasted, acting chops.

Gabriel Byrne fares better, as a priest who is dedicated to his profession, but not enough to turn away from a romantic subplot that forms between Frankie and himself. And why the heck not? Byrne may very well be one of the better-looking priest characters in any movie I've seen (certainly more so than the various Fathers in "The Exorcist"), and aside from this casting flaw, he really is a strong presence in his more challenging moments on-screen.

At times, the repititious violence that fills the screen throughout grows overly tedious (I mean, how many near-fatal wounds can a normal person get without dying?), and the supporting characters may have helped break up the grisliness of the proceedings. They, too, are severely wasted, particularly Nia Long (a fine actress in her own right), who is stuck playing the "concerned friend" character. Unlike most, though, the film doesn't even follow through with her, as she disappears midway through and is never seen again.

As "Stigmata" plays out its bag of tricks, continuously growing more and more ludicrous with each passing moment until it completely collapses in its fire-and-brimstone climactic exorcism, one is led to wonder exactly how anyone would like the film. The story developments and character interactions are especially unrewarding, particularly the ending, which is supposed to be a greatly touching moment, but only comes off as cornball. The film ultimately leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, mostly from its lack of emotion, and comes off feeling overblown rather than the least bit scary. I think I've changed my mind about "Stigmata" being the third sequel in the famous possession series; on second thought, it's more akin to "Exorcist II: The Heretic."

Copyright 2000 Dustin Putman

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