An enjoyable, superstylish supernatural thriller that doesn't make much sense -- except in the director's mind.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published August 2, 2000 6:33PM (EDT)

Directed by Rupert Wainwright
Starring Patricia Arquette, Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Pryce, Nia Long
MGM/UA; widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Directors commentary, deleted scenes, trailers, more

"Stigmata" has style to burn, and that's pretty much what director Rupert Wainwright does -- literally, in the flame-enshrouded climactic exorcism scene between a possessed hairdresser (Patricia Arquette) and a glowering priest (Gabriel Byrne). Wainwright certainly could have toned down the assaultive array of MTV-goes-to-the-Vatican special effects and process photography (the guy has seen "Blade Runner" too damn many times), but there's no disputing his brashness and flair for fashion-drenched supernatural fantasy.

The unlikely coupling of Arquette, as a Pittsburgh hipster chick inexplicably stricken with stigmata (that is, the wounds of Christ on the cross), and Byrne, as a Vatican miracle hunter, also pays dividends. When the romantic and sexual tension between them finally arrives, it's so tender and plausible that the film's murky theological concerns actually seem like they might be more important than the clubland scenes and Billy Corgan's industrial rock soundtrack. (Someone involved with "Stigmata," however, should have looked into the question of whether Pittsburgh has subway trains before shooting a scene on one.) This isn't a great movie, but as millennium-madness eye candy for a rainy night at home, it beats the hell out of either "End of Days" or "The Ninth Gate."

On one viewing, the plot of "Stigmata" seemed completely incoherent to me. Who exactly is possessing Arquette? The devil? Some old guy from Brazil, bearing the true words of Jesus? If it's the latter, why is he messing her up so bad? (And is it Patricia or her spectral guest who wants to jump Gabriel's bones?) Wainwright's commentary, delivered in his posh Oxbridge tones, seems so reasoned and articulate that he nearly convinced me that all the flayed skin, bleached-out backgrounds, reverse drops of water and extreme close-ups of candle flames actually add up to something. As with any effects-driven movie, the director's revelations about how it's all managed will be fascinating to film geeks. Among the deleted scenes is Wainwright's preferred ending, which is much clearer, and truer to the movie's governing mood, than the icky cop-out chosen by the studio. Also included are trailers, production notes and the music video for the theme song, Natalie Imbruglia's "Identify."

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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