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Stigmata

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 17 September 1999

Stigmata  

Directed by Rupert Wainwright. 

Starring Patricia Arquette, 
Gabriel Byrne, Enrico Colantoni, 
Nia Long, Portia De Rossi, 
Thomas Kopache, Dick Latessa, 
Rade Sherbedgia and Jonathan Pryce.

Screenplay by Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage
 story by Tom Lazarus.

In Stigmata, Patricia Arquette plays Frankie Paige, a scrawny young thing, working as a hairdresser in Pittsburgh, who suddenly begins experiencing violent, disconcerting spells of hallucination, combined with manifestations of stigmata -- the wounds suffered by Christ while on the cross. A Vatican envoy, Father Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), speedily arrives at her door, to find out that, not only does Frankie not attend church, but she -- whoops! -- doesn't believe in a Higher Being. Then she starts writing things in Aramaic, one of the arcane languages used to write the Gospels, and speaking in voices not her own. Will Frankie say or do something that could shake the very roots of Christian theology and threaten Western civilization as we know it?

StigmataIn case you've been in Nepal, we're on the verge of getting a lot of "the end is nigh" movies during the months to come, ranging from the ensemble drama Last Night to big-budget Hollywood stuff: Winona Ryder is set to get all worried and fretful in Lost Souls, while Das Schwarzenegger is going to star in something called End of Days, which already has the distinction of having the most hideous advance one-sheet poster I've seen in years. Stigmata, which was originally to have appeared in theaters last spring, is now poised in the unenviable position of sounding the clarion call for these other movies, but it turns out to have other things on its mind.

The picture has a workable idea -- what would happen if a completely unreligious person began having intense, even ecstatic, religious visions and experiences -- and the material, or the original version of it, seems to have brought out some of the best in its performers. Patricia Arquette is warm, soft, shyly inviting and ingenuous, while Gabriel Byrne gives one of his most relaxed, confident performances in years.

But after an adrenaline-charged first half, the second half gradually begins to disassemble-- characters are misplaced, plot references are left hanging, and the movie gets addle-headed, as if it can't decide what it wants to be. (At one point, it turns into a garden-variety exorcist movie, for a while.) StigmataThe Aramaic scribings turn out to be part of a scriptural message, which suggests, for one thing, that organized religion may be superfluous to the practice of faith. It would have been nice to have found out something more about what it said, but one senses that the story is actually more about what happens to the two main characters who are thrown together by these circumstances. Yet every time it looks like we're about to learn something more about them, and we lean forward to find out what it is, Arquette is pitched into writing and thrashing about, and the screen becomes swamped with rapid-fire images and digitally-enhanced noise. (The original music score, by Billy Corgan, Elia Cmiral, and Mike Garson, is anything but noise, though.)

The fate of Frankie and Father Kiernan is finally left vague and in limbo -- we don't find out what all this pounding and yammering on Frankie ends up meaning to her, or whether she even remains an atheist or not, while Father Kiernan is left, literally, sitting on his hands. That's a little better than what happens to Rade Sherbedgia, the talented Yugoslavian actor whose character, a benevolent but renegade priest, has been snipped away to nothing during one of the film's trips to the editing room.

If this film is about anything, it's water. This is the wettest-looking movie I've seen since Blade Runner: Pittsburgh is shown under a perpetual deluge of rainfall, and it doesn't stop there. Frankie's apartment leaks (sometimes upwards); and there's a gorgeous double-reflection effect of her body submerged in an old-style bathtub. (One of the only times the photography, by Jeffrey L. Kimball, doesn't emulate the dark, burnt quality that seems to have become all the rage since Mike Figgis used super-16 mm. to film Leaving Las Vegas.) Persons attending Stigmata may be advised to take an umbrella.


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