Stigmata (review)

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Men in Black

If you’re a Monty Python fan, you might get a big kick out of Stigmata, because it offers many, many appropriate opportunities to shout out “The bishop!” or “Noooobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

Director Rupert Wainwright’s chief weapon is a bad script. A bad script and predictable– His two chief weapons are a bad script and predictable pacing… and an almost fanatical devotion– Amongst his weaponry: a bad script, predictable pacing, and an almost fanatical devotion to MTV-style filmmaking.

You get the picture. It would be bad enough if Stigmata‘s only fault was its inconsistent and contradictory story. It would be bad enough if the only major problem was that you could set your watch by the plot points. It would be more than enough if the epilepsy-inducing montage sequences and frenetic camerawork were the primary criticism one could put forth. But put them all together and you get a stupendously annoying movie.
Jesuit priest Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne: Enemy of the State, The End of Violence), an investigator of alleged miracles for the Vatican, comes upon the seemingly genuine article — an extreme rarity — in a Brazilian village. At the funeral of a beloved priest, a statue of the Virgin Mary weeps real blood. Doves appear from nowhere. Candles mysteriously blow out and re-ignite on their own. Weird. Unbeknownst to Andrew, the rosary beads clasped in the hands of the priest’s corpse, on display in the church, are stolen, only to be sold in a marketplace to an unsuspecting American, who in turn sends them to her daughter, Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette: Nightwatch), in Pittsburgh.

Why would Mom send her daughter — whom we later learn is an atheist — a set of rosary beads? Why would these beads somehow become a sort of conductor or carrier of the priest’s spirit, which possesses Frankie’s body? Why would a “holy man” possess an atheist’s body, anyway? We do learn later he’s got some startling news of direct interest to the Catholic Church to pass on, but then why would he seemingly be trying to kill Frankie by manifesting Christ’s stigmata — the wounds of his crucifixion — on her body?

Just when the questions get to be too much, Wainwright offers us a shot of Cardinal Daniel Houseman (Jonathan Pryce: Ronin, Tomorrow Never Dies), whom we’ve pegged as the bad guy the moment he appeared onscreen, striding menacingly toward something or other, his evil toady in tow, their black robes flying out in slow motion behind them. Nooobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Andrew ends up investigating Frankie’s problem, explaining to her that there are five stigmata wounds — holes through the wrists, holes through the feet, whiplashes on the back, foreheads wounds from a crown of thorns, and finally a spear in the side — but that stigmatics typically exhibit only one or two. Frankie looks on track to show them all, and Stigmata eventually becomes a waiting game, one you can easily call: Here come the foot wounds! (Frankie’s forehead wounds disappear and then reappear in a whopper of a continuity error.)

While you’re waiting, you’ll be assaulted by Wainwright’s insane camerawork: closeups without context or meaning, like that of someone lighting a cigarette or pouring a cup of coffee; endlessly repetition of shots of water dripping in slow motion; double exposures and overexposures of religious imagery and sprays of blood. Stigmata is dizzying — and not in a good way. Bring Tylenol.

Stigmata simply never makes any sense. Frankie is supposedly possessed by a priest but acts like she’s been taken over by Satan (why else would she rip a cross from a startled nun?). When Andrew begs the spirit to leave Frankie’s body and take his, the spirit tells Andrew — who’s at best agnostic — that “a messenger believes, a messenger has faith, you have only doubt,” which utterly contradicts his earlier pronouncement to Andrew that the messenger doesn’t matter, which was an attempt to explain why he bothered with an atheist messenger in the first place. It’s enough to make your head twist all the way round.

But the worst of it is that it’s so easy to see how much better this movie could have been. Stigmata shows us a nefarious and secretive Vatican working not to promote faith and devotion in its adherents but merely to maintain the status quo, maintain the powerful institution it has created for itself. And here is a woman, Frankie, trying, however inadvertently, to bring that male-dominated institution down. The Catholic Church doesn’t fear atheists — it fears faithful women who want more power and authority in the Church. With not too many alterations in its story, Stigmata could have been a potent metaphor for very real problems the Church is facing.

Instead, we get a two-hour Madonna video. But it does have Gabriel Byrne in little glasses and two priests fighting, in case you like that kind of thing. Woo-hoo!

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