A damp, shallow thriller gives that old-time religion the MTV treatment.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
September 10, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
main article image

There's nothing like the end of the millennium to whip up the masses for the rapture. But it doesn't necessarily follow that partying like it's 1999 has to look like a Prince video from 1984.

"Stigmata" is yet another in this year's long line of supernatural thrillers, but it doesn't have much in common with the enjoyably surprising "Blair Witch Project" or "The Sixth Sense." Instead, it's a leaden exercise in what can go wrong when movies attempt to explore mysterious forces with dated special effects and easy symbolism.


The unearthly menace this time out isn't a ghost or witch. It's the almighty himself, and he's one angry dude. The object of his wrath is contentedly godless hairdresser Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette), who finds herself beset with holy torments after receiving from her mom a rosary stolen from the corpse of a spooky South American priest. One day Frankie's just another night-clubbing, shiny shirt-wearing hipster. The next she's scrawling cryptic messages in Aramaic, having disturbing visions and, worst of all, developing a bad case of stigmata -- the crucifixion wounds of Jesus.

Naturally, Frankie doesn't associate her recent traumas with mom's little vacation souvenir, and for much of the movie, the viewer is also unclear about the connection. We see from the ominous way the package makes its way to Frankie that it's bad news, but why? Is Frankie channeling the suffering of Christ himself, or just a pissed-off priest who wants his beads back? And just when it couldn't get any murkier, the demonic possession kicks in: The poor girl's got more squatters in her than an East Village tenement.

Attempting to unravel the enigma is Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), the Vatican's own Fox Mulder. Kiernan, a man of God and of science, is dispatched to Pittsburgh in search of an explanation for Frankie's distressing condition, but his mission is thwarted by the nefarious Cardinal Houseman (Jonathan Pryce, playing the same supervillain from the last Bond movie, only in a Roman collar), whose motives seem anywhere but on the side of the angels. As Frankie keeps racking up the wounds -- usually in spectacularly public ways -- Kiernan races to find a cure appropriate for someone who doesn't have a three-day resurrection guarantee ahead of them.


Aside from the fact that "Stigmata" has a very silly plot (you can almost imagine the pitch meeting: "Hot babe gets a weird, special effects-friendly religious condition! We can throw in a sexy priest!"), it's also executed in a very silly way. For one thing, our suspension of disbelief is already pretty much exhausted by the time we're asked to believe that the attractive but far-from-inginue Patricia Arquette is 23, or that Gabriel Byrne is a brilliant biochemist/cleric.

And then there's the whole puzzling look of the film, perhaps the most liquid movie without a shark ever shot. Gore oozes from statues and seeps from strategic points on Frankie. Water swishes around the bathtub and pink, blood-tinged basins. Tequila flows at a club, sacramental wine at a church. And it rains. Oh how it rains. Funny how we've never heard about it before, but Pittsburgh apparently has a monsoon season. Vatican City and little Brazilian towns may glow in the warm afternoon sun, but in Pennsylvania, it's always a high-precipitation day. There might be some deep spiritual allegory here, or it might just be an excuse to keep Arquette wet. Not even the great indoors can provide relief -- what with all that rain, Frankie's apartment leaks like a White House press secretary. All totaled, the film contains about five minutes of footage in which the persistent bloop of water dripping is absent and everyone is dry.

As if the whole movie didn't already resemble a vintage hair band video, the soundtrack by the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan piles on even more studied despair. Like a number of new directors, "Stigmata" helmsman Rupert Wainwright cut his teeth shooting commercials and music videos. That slick, artsy sensibility can be great when effectively harnessed -- as in the breathless Run Lola Run -- but here it just looks like an amalgam of the tiredest tricks of basic cable.


As bleak as the music and the look are, the film gets worse when the dialogue starts. Nobody expects a popcorn thriller to be a catechism lesson, but even audience members who didn't go to Catholic school will find the film's exposition wildly clunky. Is it possible that Frankie has never heard of a rosary? Why does Father Kiernan need someone to explain to him the history of the gospels?

The movie also suffers from a plot point that demands a certain amount of chemistry between Father Kiernan and Frankie -- largely because Byrne and Arquette don't have any. While the actors may be attempting to communicate a certain just-shy-of-scandalous ambivalence, they also radiate profound disinterest, even when they're allegedly flirting. Somehow they're much more convincing when she's babbling in tongues and he's cowering in the corner.


Part of the problem with "Stigmata" may be that the "girl in the bed with the strangely deep voice and the doubting priest about to get his ass kicked" thing has already been done, quite brilliantly, 25 years ago in "The Exorcist." But the success of this year's spine-tinglers proves that the genre can still effectively reinvent itself with the right performers and a few well-placed twists. The subject of religious ecstasy and torment has long spurred good artists to imaginative visions of fire and brimstone. But in less divinely inspired hands, it can also lead to something else -- something that just looks like a soggy mess.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth WilliamsFOLLOW embeedub

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Horror Movies Thrillers