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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

One church group has already protested "Stigmata," insuring that while the movie may not topple the invincible "Sixth Sense" from box-office domination, Rupert Wainwright's film will attract a larger audience than it deserves. Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage's script indicates that since Jesus proclaimed in his sermons that "the kingdom of God is within you," he implicitly warned against the building of stone and marble edifices (read: beautiful, expensive churches) to glorify his word. While this motif is supposed to make "Stigmata" subversive, kids have learned this fact of spiritual life virtually on their first day in Sunday school--or so I hear from Ed Johnson-Ott, my distinguished online colleague in Indianapolis. Since the Gospel according to Luke has long accommodated this precept, the notion is nothing new and certainly no cardinal, however reactionary, would think of killing a woman who is involuntarily bearing this message to the citizens of Pittsburgh.

"Stigmata" is done up flagrantly in MTV style, given its frequent flurries of blood-soaked vistas jolted to dramatic life by a soundtrack contributed by Smashing Pumpkins singer Billy Corgan's version of the Vatican rag. The music is at least an improvement over the usual Carmina Burana cliche so often trotted out when melodramatic religiosity is required. Director Wainwright, expecting a fidgety audience unwilling or unable to meditate upon one location or plot for too long, switches his scenes sporadically from a Brazilian village to the Vatican to New York City to Pittsburgh in a merry-go- roundelay of geographical panoramas and cultures. His characters speak English, Aramaic, Italian and Portuguese as they wind their way through a series of plots and subplots involving a cardinal who thinks he's the Pittsburgh strangler, a priest who thinks he's a scientist, and a manicurist who has acquired the skill of having nails cut her.

Father Kiernan is under Vatican assignments with the thankless job of proving that miracles just don't happen any more--not on 34th Street, not in Milan and certainly not on Main Street, in the wilderness or in the rain. When he visits a church in a Brazilian village which has reported a statue crying bloody tears, he furiously takes pictures with his Nikon like a frocked Faye Dunaway but is prevented from wrapping the statue and shipping it for lab analysis to his eerie boss, Cardinal Houseman (Jonathan Pryce), in the Vatican. But this does not stop the rich, bourgeois mother of Frankie Paige from shipping rosary beads--stolen from a dead priest lying in state next to the statue--to her daughter in Pittsburgh, after which Frankie begins to bleed in the same areas of her body from which the wounded Jesus bled on the cross--the stigmata of the movie's title. Suffering epileptic-type seizures in several incidents while bleeding from the wrist, feet and head, she baffles the doctors who believe the wounds are self-inflicted and upsets her best friend, Donna (Nia Long), who runs after her like a mother hen each time she is overcome. Father Kiernan takes on the task of finding out the truth behind the affronts to Frankie's body.

The most intriguing feature of the story is the sexual gamesmanship between a priest of matinee-idol looks, Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) and the 23-year-old manicurist, Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette) who hits on him, having us in the audience place bets on whether she can nail him before she gets overly nailed herself.

As the Smashing Pumpkins-inspired soundtrack is pumped up now and then, Hitchcockian birds fly about, undulating first in the Brazilian church, later in Frankie's capacious apartment, summoning thoughts of the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi who was said to lose a pint of blood a day when that great friend of animals himself suffered from the stigmata. The scenes featured prominently in the movie's trailer--a man's ominous voice originating from the body of this clueless manicurist who suddenly graffities her walls with fluent Aramaic--are reminiscent of Linda Blair's outcries in the daddy of the genre, "The Exorcist," and by now are anything but scary.

Lack of credibility is the least of the movie's problems. Over-the-top imagery, music, and rapid-fire editing are the culprits that stigmatize the story, one which, like "The Haunting," is too overwrought to scare anyone or to intimidate any devoutly religious folks concerned about the film's allegedly subversive strain. Gabriel Byrne is wonderfully cast as the handsome priest who, despite his meetings with the seductive (but in my view unappealing) Patricia Arquette nonetheless convinces us that he is fighting his own demons, while Ms. Arquette tries unavailingly to show that a beautician can be as captivating as Warren Beatty.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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